House Republicans advanced a budget plan Thursday that would prevent legal sales of marijuana in the District until at least 2017.
Advocates for legalization, however, called it a victory.
What the Republican budget does not do yet is roll back Initiative 71, the voter-approved measure from November that legalized pot for recreational use in the nation’s capital. Since early this year, D.C. residents have been allowed to possess, grow and, in the privacy of their own homes, smoke marijuana.
Many opportunities remain during the federal budget process for conservatives to target the law. But advocates for legal pot said the fact that an outright ban did not appear to be an early budget priority added to other signs that the GOP-controlled Congress may be softening its opposition to marijuana.
Last week, the House approved a bipartisan measure to protect state medical-marijuana programs. For only the second time, it instructed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration not to target state dispensaries or medical-marijuana manufacturing or distribution facilities. The House also told the DEA to leave alone states that allow sales of cannabinoids or CBD oils derived from cannabis plants. House lawmakers also moved to protect production of hemp for industrial purposes.
On the Senate side, a handful of Republicans joined Democrats late last month in a committee vote to allow Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where it is legal. And on Thursday, a Senate committee adopted the House language protecting state medical-marijuana programs, meaning it will probably become law.
“We feel pretty good that the momentum is on our side,” said Bill Piper, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.
Even Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who initiated the congressional effort to quash D.C. legalization last year, said in a statement that he has no plans to seek amendments to the federal budget that target marijuana laws. Harris said he thinks that the District erred in legalizing possession — but that it will be up to the next presidential administration and attorney general to clamp down on the city.
Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that in the drug-policy arena, he is more concerned about restoring administration-proposed cuts to funding for the fight against drug trafficking in areas such as the Mexican border. He said in an interview that he did not anticipate any “earthquakes” from his committee regarding D.C. “social policy.”
James Jones, a spokesman for the pro-statehood group DC Vote, called the apparent lack of will to alter the District’s legalization law a “small victory.” But he said Thursday that advocates for the District would not breathe easily until the federal budget is finalized later this year.
So far, the House Appropriations Committee has essentially cut and pasted into the next spending plan the same ineffective prohibition against D.C. legalization that it used last year.
Included in the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill advanced Thursday was an identical passage prohibiting the District from spending any money to “enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession” of marijuana.
Early this year, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) cast aside that prohibition, saying the language could not impede the District, because voters had already approved Initiative 71 — and the measure was “self-enacting.”
A handful of House Republicans, led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), warned the mayor against going forward but did not follow through on threats that the House could take legal action against D.C. officials for doing so.
The House budget language advanced on Thursday would not block possession but it would continue an ongoing ban on sales. Specifically, the language would continue through the next fiscal year a prohibition on the District spending any money to set up a system to regulate sales and tax marijuana, as Colorado, Washington state and Oregon have done since voters in those states approved legalization.
That congressional prohibition on full legalization would probably allow a black market for marijuana sales to continue to flourish in the city. Some marijuana peddlers have referred to last year’s federal budget as the District’s “dealer-protection act,” because it kept regulated sales illegal. A first citywide crop of homegrown marijuana is expected to be harvested this summer.
A study last year by D.C. financial officials estimated that a legal cannabis market in the District could grow to be a $130 million a year enterprise, driving $20 million in new tax revenue into the city annually. That’s as much as the mayor sought this year in a sales-tax increase to combat the city’s homeless crisis.
Rep. José E. Serrano, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that advanced the spending bill, said he could not support the continued restriction on the District to set its own laws on marijuana policy and other matters.
“I did not run for Washington, D.C. City Council, I ran for U.S. Congress,” said Serrano (N.Y.). “The people of D.C. deserve the right to govern themselves.”