Cannabis in Washington, D.C.
In the District of Columbia, cannabis is legal for recreational and medical uses, but is barred from commercial sale. Though the drug was fully legalized in the District following a 2014 ballot referendum, the United States Congress exercises oversight over the government of the District of Columbia, preventing the local government from regulating cannabis sales like other jurisdictions with authority derived from a U.S. state.
Medical cannabis (1998)
Initiative 59 was a 1998 Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that sought to legalize medical cannabis. The short title of the initiative was "Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998". Though the initiative passed with 69% of the vote in November 1998, its implementation was delayed by Congress's passage of the Barr Amendment, which prohibited DC from using its funds in support of the program. This Amendment delayed the start of the medical marijuana program until it was effectively overturned in 2009, with the first DC customer legally purchasing medical cannabis at a dispensary in the District in 2013.
A bill by the Washington, D.C. council was not overruled by Congress. Medical cannabis became legal on Jan. 1, 2011. Though carefully regulated through a lengthy permitting process, dispensaries began opening and cultivation centers were allowed.
In a January 2014 poll by The Washington Post, roughly eight in 10 city residents supported legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. On March 4, 2014, the Council of the District of Columbia decriminalized possession of cannabis. The new law went into effect in July, following the mandatory 30-day congressional review period.
Congress sought to block D.C.'s decriminalization through another rider. On June 25, 2014, House Republicans, led by Maryland's representative Andy Harris blocked funding for the D.C. law. The Harris amendment bans the D.C. government from spending any funds on efforts to lessen penalties for Schedule I federal drug crimes. Harris argued that the D.C. law was "bad policy" assessing a fine of $25—a fraction of the $100 fine in Maryland. In response, activists launched the Boycott of Maryland's 1st District, Harris' constituency.
Initiative 71 was a Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. The short title of the initiative was Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014. The measure was approved by 64.87% of voters on November 4, 2014 and went into full effect February 26, 2015 at 12:01 a.m.
Opposition in Congress
In mid-December 2014, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill (nicknamed the "CRomnibus"—a portmanteau of omnibus and continuing resolution) that ended the federal ban on medical marijuana, but that also included a legislative rider targeted at D.C.'s Initiative 71. The rider's final language barred the use of funds to "enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes." The final language notably solely used the phrase "enact" rather than "enact or carry out." Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that "she was told by Democratic budget negotiators that the omission was made on purpose to give city leaders a chance to argue that in moving forward, the District is only carrying out, and not enacting, the measure." Norton reiterated this point in an Initiative 71 questions and answers section on her House Web site.
Both D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council of the District of Columbia took the position that the voter-approved initiative became self-enacting. On January 13, 2015, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson sent the measure to Congress for a mandatory 30-day review period, in accordance with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act.
On February 24, 2015, Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Mark Meadows sent a letter to Bowser urging her to not move forward with Initiative 71. Congressional Republicans, including the omnibus rider author's Andy Harris, threatened prison time for the D.C. mayor and others involved, suggesting that they could be prosecuted by the Justice Department under the Anti-Deficiency Act, which "imposes criminal penalties on government employees who knowingly spend public funds in excess of their appropriated budgets."
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