A top Washington, D.C. lawmaker is unhappy with Capitol Hill after Congressional leaders last week decided against removing a ban on recreational cannabis sales in the nation’s capital.
Phil Mendelson, the chair of the D.C. City Council, said quite simply that “Congress needs to step out of this.”
“It perpetuates the current lawless situation in the city,” Mendselon said, as quoted by local news outlet WTOP.
But therein lies the rub. While voters in the District of Columbia legalized recreational pot use for adults all the way back in 2014, the sale of cannabis remains illegal. That is because Congress has oversight of laws in D.C. And every spending bill passed by Congress since that legalization initiative has contained what’s come to be known as the “Harris Rider.”
Named for Maryland Republican Congressman Andy Harris, the budget rider has barred the district from commercializing pot.
After initial signals from Congressional Democrats that they were prepared to remove the Harris Rider, it was still included in the $1.5 trillion spending bill that passed last Thursday. The bill was signed by President Joe Biden on Tuesday.
Mendelson said all that ban has done is promote illicit activity in the district, specifically pointing to the “pop-up” stores that sell weed anyway.
“These pop-ups are illegal,” Mendelson told WTOP.
“It’s an invitation to criminal activity, such as robberies,” he added. “It is fomenting criminal activity and that’s the public safety problem that Congress has handed us.”
Cannabis reform advocates were hopeful that, with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, the Harris Rider would finally be done away with.
When Senate Democrats introduced an appropriations bill in the fall that did not include the rider, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser applauded the exclusion. As Bowser alluded to at the time, the ban on commercial weed sales captures the frustration stemming from D.C.’s lack of statehood.
“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” Bowser’s office said in October. “As we continue on the path to D.C. statehood, I want to thank Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, our good friend and Subcommittee Chair, Senator Chris Van Hollen, and, of course, our champion on the Hill, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for recognizing and advancing the will of D.C. voters. We urge Congress to pass a final spending bill that similarly removes all anti-Home Rule riders, allowing D.C. to spend our local funds as we see fit.”
Earlier this month, a group of more than 50 cannabis reform and civil rights advocacy groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, sent a letter to Congressional leadership calling for an end to the Harris Rider.
“In one hand, Congress continues to make strides in advancing federal marijuana reform grounded in racial justice, while simultaneously being responsible for prohibiting the very jurisdiction that led the country in legalizing marijuana through this lens from being able to regulate it. This conflict and contradiction must end now,” said Queen Adesuyi, senior national policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.
“Leadership passing on this historic chance to be on the right side of history—in standing for both marijuana reform and democracy—would be demoralizing, and a clear sign that there is a stronger commitment to use D.C. as a bargaining chip than on the values of marijuana justice and home rule. We look forward to working with them to finally bring this injustice to a close and ensure D.C. residents’ voice and vote are respected,” Adesuyi added.