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Bill to lift restrictions on D.C. advances

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By Darryl Fears and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 10, 2009

A House and Senate Appropriations conference committee approved legislation late Tuesday that would allow the District to use local tax dollars to help low-income women pay for abortions, to allow patients to legally use marijuana when it is prescribed by a doctor and to continue to fund needle-exchange programs in a bid to limit the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The compromise legislation, which must go before the full House and Senate and could be voted on by week's end, would end decades of prohibitions that city officials and activists say increased the number of impoverished children, expanded the number of people infected by HIV and AIDS, and blocked a District referendum 10 years ago that allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

"This is a great triumph for the District," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Wednesday. Although two votes remain, Norton said, "we think it's over." The financial services legislation that governs District spending is contained in a large package of bills, "and it will be hard to take this one out," she said. "We're almost home free."

The conference committee report could face stiff resistance in the full House and Senate because of the loosened restriction on abortion.

Last week, 35 Republican senators sent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a letter warning that they might derail the spending bill if the restrictions on abortion were changed. "We want to assure you that we are prepared to take full advantage of our rights under Senate rules," the letter states.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the efforts to separate local from federal funds "an artificial distinction" that has been fabricated for the purpose of allowing abortion. "We see this as an exercise in deceptive labeling," Johnson said. "All of the funds spent by the city government are appropriated by Congress, and this is required under the Constitution so the buck does stop with Congress."

Laura Meyers, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, disagreed, saying the District seeks only the same rights granted to states. "The District of Columbia has been singled out," Meyers said. The Hyde Amendment prohibits the District and states from using federal money to fund abortions, but states are free to use local tax dollars to cover the cost of the procedure for poor women who cannot otherwise afford it.

Meyers said that private donations help some women but that it's possible many are turned away from clinics and hospitals. "Knowing the kind of poverty we have here in the District of Columbia, you're talking about a wide disparity in who has access to care."

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) released a statement calling the action "a bold step" by the Democratic-controlled Congress that amounts to "important, long overdue victories for the District of Columbia and its quest for autonomy and expanded home rule."

In 1998, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to legalize the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana if recommended by a physician for serious illnesses. Initiative 59 passed with 69 percent of the vote, but before the law could go into effect, the Republican-controlled Congress enacted an amendment that blocked the city from setting its own drug policies.

It has taken a decade to persuade Congress to remove the impediment, said Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

"It's 11 years overdue," Mirken said. "It's about time the citizens of the District of Columbia had their own health policies respected."

If the compromise bill is passed and signed into law by President Obama, the District would join 13 states in legalizing marijuana for medical use.

Final approval of the bill would also allow the District to continue using local tax dollars to fund needle-exchange programs that provide clean syringes to addicts to stem the spread of AIDS. In 2007, Congress ended a decade-long prohibition against city funding, allowing the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration to provide four nonprofit agencies with $700,000 to distribute needles in high drug- trafficking areas.

But in July, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) added a rider to the D.C. appropriations bill that "essentially wipes out the program," Norton said at the time. Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, campaigned against Kingston's amendment and won. "I didn't want to turn D.C. into a colony," he said. "D.C. gets to decide where it can have needle exchange."


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