When it comes to marijuana, D.C. knows disappointment. In 1998, District voters approved a referendum that would have legalized medical marijuana in the city, but Congress swiftly passed legislation preventing this law from ever going into effect. It took the city more than a decade to finally get its first medical marijuana dispensaries open for business.
Fast forward to the present, when the national climate for marijuana reform is decisively friendlier than it was in 1998, and Congress once again blocked a voter-approved referendum to loosen marijuana laws in the city. This time it was Initiative 71 — which would allow people over 21 to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to six cannabis plants — that voters passed last November and Congress subsequently tried to quash in December. (The District was able, however, to successfully decriminalize the possession of marijuana in 2014.)
But last week, President Obama gave new life to the presumed (almost) dead legalization initiative in his massive budget proposal, giving D.C. residents a bit of hope that the law they voted for in November would go into effect sooner than later. But this is Washington, and, by now, residents know not to get their hopes up too high when it comes to marijuana reform.
Here’s a look back at the highs and subsequent, er, buzzkills of Initiative 71 over the last 18 months.
High: There were some hiccups along the way, but the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, the organization that spearheaded efforts to pass Initiative 71, submitted the necessary signatures in July to the District’s Board of Elections to land pot legalization on the upcoming November ballot.
Buzzkill: Anti-pot activists warned they would organize a grass-roots effort against fully legalized marijuana in the District.
High: That effort never materialized in a meaningful way. The voters spoke on Nov. 4 and said they wanted their legal weed. D.C. residents overwhelmingly passed Initiative 71 with more than 70 percent of the vote. On election night, marijuana advocates and proponents celebrated responsibly.
Buzzkill: In December, Republicans, who didn’t yet control the Senate, tacked on a provision to the House’s $1 trillion “cromnibus” spending bill that barred the District from using any of its funds to enact marijuana legalization. Congress is allowed to do this because the District is not a state and, under the Home Rule Charter, the federal legislative body can block any D.C. law it pleases. Lawmakers sometimes opt to squash D.C. laws through the appropriations process, which allows them to block legislation by telling D.C. how it can spend its money. The spending bill ultimately passed both chambers with the anti-marijuana provision intact.
The Democratic muscles in Congress, like then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, noted they were ideologically against Congress meddling with the law but said their hands were tied and did nothing to help the District. If they did want to take a stand against the provision, they risked a rejection of the entire spending bill, putting the country on the road to another government shutdown.
High: After Congress effectively voted to block the law, officials including the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), said there was a potential loophole in the wording in the Congressional provision. Under the rider, the District could not use funds to “enact any law, rule, or regulation” to legalize or reduce penalties for recreational use of marijuana. But Norton argued that the law was enacted when residents voted in favor of it in November, and now the city just had to implement it.
Furthermore, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has since sent the legislation to Congress for approval, ignoring the whole tête-à-tête that just happened during the budget process and challenging Congress to block Initiative 71 in its entirety or let it stand.
Buzzkill: Even if Norton’s reading of the provision holds up and the law goes into effect, Initiative 71 only legalizes the possession of marijuana, not the selling of it. The D.C. Council had planned to introduce legislation that would regulate the sales of marijuana once the possession was legalized, but, even with the ambiguously worded rider, it would be hard for the city to muster a law regulating the sale of marijuana through Congress.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she is concerned that legalizing the possession of marijuana without any laws in place to regulate sales could lead to open-air drug markets.
High: Much of the national media still seems very confused about the Home Rule Charter and the city’s relationship with Congress, and in recent weeks, publications like the Economist and Buzzfeed have reported that recreational marijuana is fully legal in the nation’s capital.
Buzzkill: Don’t light up just yet. These reports are all false.
High: Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget, released this week, potentially removed Congress’ prohibition on D.C. marijuana. Congress’ bill said no “funds in this act” could be used to loosen marijuana related laws. Obama’s law said no “federal” funds in this act could be used, which advocates say undoes the funding restrictions imposed by Congress in its provision.
Buzzkill: Obama’s budget will have to pass through Republican-dominated committees in both chambers, and it wouldn’t be too hard for someone to strike this provision that, as it stands now, works in the District’s favor.