Pubdate: Thu, 11 Dec 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Aaron C. Davis and Mike Debonis


Let City Govern Itself, Activists Say

D.C. officials and activists for marijuana legalization launched a 
long-shot bid Wednesday to halt a federal budget deal that appeared 
poised to upend the city's successful ballot measure last month to 
legalize the drug.

The day after Congress came to a tentative budget deal that included 
language intended to block the city's measure, proponents chanted and 
marched to Capitol Hill, held a sit-in at the office of Senate 
Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and promised to keep urging 
congressional leaders to let the District govern itself.

"The best thing that could happen here - the only good thing - is 
that people around the country may finally realize that the will of 
people in D.C." is not respected, said D.C. Council member David 
Grosso (I-At Large), a leading advocate for legalization.

"Members of Congress of both parties are willing to sell us down the 
river to get some of their priorities through," Grosso said. 
"Hopefully, people will stand up this time and say, 'Enough is enough.' "

In recent weeks, for a rare moment, D.C. voters found themselves on 
the leading edge of a liberal social-policy experiment. A 
voter-backed measure to legalize marijuana passed overwhelmingly last 
month, bringing a debate about drug policy that had simmered in 
faraway Western states to the nation's capital.

Then Congress stepped in. With the simplest of policy orders - a few 
sentences tucked into a 1,600-page spending bill - negotiators all 
but invalidated the will of D.C. voters.

Although the spending bill remained in flux late Wednesday, the 
language affecting the city's marijuana initiative was not expected 
to change. Congress could vote on the budget as soon as this week.

It was not the first time federal lawmakers had meddled, but blocking 
Initiative 71 became the latest and perhaps most visible example of 
the city's lack of autonomy.

On Nov. 4, voters in Alaska, the District and Oregon chose to 
legalize marijuana, but only the District's vote was subject to 
interference by Congress, which not only determines the city's 
federal spending allotments but is also empowered to restrict even 
how local tax dollars are used to enact and enforce laws.

The provision added to the $1 trillion spending bill prohibits the 
District from using any of its own funds or federal funds to enact or 
implement drug laws that are weaker than federal ones, which still 
classify marijuana in the most dangerous class.

Just how powerless D.C. lawmakers and activists remain to turn back 
the affront to local autonomy was repeatedly evident Wednesday.

Reid never bothered to return to his office to meet with protesters 
assembled there. The group left after two hours. Outside, the 
legalization advocates were vastly outnumbered by crowds protesting 
perceived mistreatment by police in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement 
demanding that the two "worst" Republican-crafted provisions be 
struck from the spending bill, a measure that would keep the 
government open until next fall, but neither had to do with the 
District or its marijuana measure.

Even the District's nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, 
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), was left waiting to plead with 
colleagues about the measure Wednesday night when a committee instead 
recessed for a floor vote.

In interviews, Norton, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and several 
members of the D.C. Council acknowledged that although the spending 
measure remained in turmoil, the city had zero leverage to remove the 
passage blocking the city's marijuana initiative.

With Republicans set to take control of the chamber in January, the 
defeat suggested that the will of D.C. voters may be suspended indefinitely.

"We don't know that there's anything else for us to do," Gray said.

Norton and a cadre of allies, however, pinned hopes on a misreading 
of the bill, saying that by one interpretation, the congressional 
provision couldn't stop an initiative already passed by voters.

D.C. election officials formally certified the referendum result Dec. 
3, and the D.C. Council has yet to send the measure to Congress for 
the legislative review period. Norton said she did not believe that 
"ministerial" act would be prohibited by the so-called congressional 
spending rider.

And she said she did not believe that the District needs to pass 
additional laws or write regulations to implement the initiative 
should it pass the review period.

"The bill already passed does not require any regulations," she said. 
"It has everything in it."

Republicans maintained forcefully that the intent of the budget 
language was clear and that District's marijuana measure would be 
rendered ineffective once the bill is voted on.

"It has to go through all the final steps, which have not yet been 
taken," said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who first proposed the 
language to halt the measure.

"The takeaway is that if Congress passes this amendment, it will have 
taken the position that it is way too early to proceed with 
legalization in the District of Columbia, and I think that most 
people think we should wait for more scientific evidence from states 
that have attempted legalization," Harris said.

The final determination for the city will be made by the D.C. 
attorney general. A spokesman for the office said attorneys were 
still reviewing the matter and were not prepared to comment. The D.C. 
Council's chief attorney also said he was still reviewing the measure.

On Wednesday, however, city attorneys said they were increasingly 
confident that the budget deal would not be able to roll back a law 
passed by the D.C. Council and signed by Gray in the spring to join 
18 states that have eliminated criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

The District now issues a $25 citation for marijuana possession.

Last month, Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she would not 
implement the legalization initiative without a companion plan to tax 
and regulate pot sales because it could lead to open-air drug 
markets. But she backed off that stance Wednesday. She suggested that 
she may be willing to try to implement Initiative 71, as Norton 
believes is possible, without a system for legal sales, which the 
congressional measure would clearly prohibit.

"My job is to uphold the will of the voters, and the voters 
overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana in the District," Bowser 
said, adding that a half-measure would still be problematic. "I 
continue to think that public safety is best served by having clear 
and enforceable laws."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom