The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate Democrats remove D.C. marijuana, abortion riders in spending plan, but hurdles remain

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) listens to Corey Barnette describe the system at District Growers in D.C. in 2019. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Senate Democrats removed a provision from their appropriations proposal that for years has prevented D.C. from legalizing the sale of marijuana — but significant hurdles remain before D.C. can start opening up recreational pot dispensaries. The appropriations bill, unveiled Monday in the Senate Appropriations Committee, also removed a rider that has prevented D.C. from using local funds to subsidize abortions for low-income people.

But Republicans indicated that they would be putting up a fight. The appropriations package would have to overcome the Senate filibuster, which would mean that even if all the Democrats support the removal of the riders and overall package, they would still have to find at least 10 Republicans to join them.

In a statement Monday evening, Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) specifically pointed to Democrats’ removal of the D.C. abortion rider as something Republicans would strongly oppose.

“Their bills are filled with poison pills and problematic authorizing provisions, and they remove important legacy riders on topics like terrorism, abortion and immigration that for years have enjoyed broad support on both sides of the aisle,” Shelby said.

Despite the hurdles, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting delegate in the House, struck an optimistic note Tuesday, saying that “with Democrats controlling the White House, House and Senate, we have the best opportunity in over a decade to enact a spending bill with no anti-democratic riders.” The House passed the appropriations package in July that did not include the two riders. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a supporter of D.C. autonomy, chairs the subcommittee overseeing D.C. appropriations and said earlier this year he would advocate for removing the riders in the Senate.

The proposal from Senate Democrats comes as D.C. is preparing to debate legislation that would legalize the sale of recreational marijuana, in anticipation of the chance, however slim, that Congress could finally lift the long prohibition.

D.C. legalized marijuana, but one thing didn’t change: Almost everyone arrested on pot charges is Black

Although voters approved a D.C. law to legalize the possession of marijuana in 2014, the budget rider written by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) has prevented D.C. from commercializing the drug and has been added into every appropriations bill since then; Congress has oversight over all D.C. laws.

That has created a pot paradox in which it’s fine to possess it but not to buy it or sell it — in turn allowing gray-market sellers to continue proliferating while preventing D.C. from benefiting from the tax revenue boost that comes with regulating recreational sales.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) called the situation “illogical.” Mendelson said the District’s inability to regulate marijuana sales has led to an influx of illegal sales and cannabis pop-up shops, which take away business from licensed medical dispensaries.

In the murky world of D.C. marijuana law, pop-up markets thrive

“The Harris rider has been a real disservice to the District,” he said. “What Congress has done is create a wild wild west where there is no ability to have meaningful, constructive regulation.”

Earlier this year, Mendelson proposed legislation that would take tax revenue raised from cannabis sales and redirect it into areas of the city that have been historically disadvantaged by poverty and the war on drugs. Mendelson said the bill also encourages local entrepreneurs to enter the cannabis market as opposed to larger, out-of-state corporations.

The council will hold a public hearing on the proposal in November, along with a proposal from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) that would expand medical marijuana dispensaries in the District — where registered patients already can obtain marijuana legally — and eliminate other hurdles. Bowser had also introduced separate legislation to legalize the sale of recreational cannabis, although that legislation is not on the agenda for the Nov. 19 hearing.

Mendelson, acknowledging the hurdles that remain in Congress, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“If the rider does not reappear, then we will move quickly on this legislation,” Mendelson said. If the rider sticks around, however, the council would likely be unable to enact it.

An additional hurdle is that President Biden kept the marijuana budget rider in place in his own budget proposal unveiled in May, which may not necessarily encourage moderate Democrats to fight for its removal in the Senate if Republicans choose to make it an issue.

Biden did, however, propose removing the D.C. abortion rider, along with the broader Hyde Amendment that has prohibited the use of federal funds to subsidize abortions for low-income people.