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Congress Will Block DC Legalization, Protect Medical Marijuana… Or Maybe Not

Russ Belville

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The US House of Representatives is working up to the last minute today on passing a one trillion dollar spending bill that keeps the government running.  If it doesn’t pass today, the government shuts down until something does pass.  This is nothing new for Washington politicians, but what is new is how legalized weed, medical marijuana, and industrial hemp are playing a role.

First, the bad news—Congress may block DC legalization.  Washington DC passed Initiative 71 this election by a whopping 70.1 percent, legalizing the personal possession of two ounces of marijuana and cultivation of three mature plants.  Whether that law ever becomes a reality depends on the definition of the word “enact”.  (Word parsing and marijuana?  Has anyone seen Bill Clinton lately?)

While DC can pass citizen initiatives, it is still subject to the rule of Congress, which has final approval over DC’s laws and DC’s budgets.  Every law passed in DC is subject to a 30-day review by Congress.  If Congress by joint resolution (both House and Senate, though the other meaning sounds more fun) disapproves the law, and the president signs the disapproval within those 30 days, the law is overturned.

Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who says, “Marijuana is a gateway drug of addiction to other drugs,” added an amendment to the spending bill that forbids DC from using any of its funds to enact the legalization law.  The big question is, when is a DC law “enacted”?

DC’s delegate (a non-voting representative in the House) Eleanor Holmes Norton argues that the people of DC enacted Initiative 71 by voting for it.  The 30-day legislative review period is there for Congress to “un-enact”, if you will, a DC law.  If Congress does nothing in 30 days, the law stands, so it must already be enacted, right?

Wrong, says Rep. Harris.  “I think enactment has a clear legal meaning and D.C. legalization clearly has not been enacted,” he says, favoring an interpretation that the approval by 70.1 percent of DC voters of Initiative 71 merely allows Congress to consider whether legalization shall be enacted.

But what exactly would DC be spending money on to enact not busting people for marijuana?  Leaving people alone who are possessing or growing marijuana doesn’t take a second of police time, court time, or jail time.  There are no investigations, no paperwork, and no statistics to keep.  Is this battle just about the cost of updating websites and law books striking old criminal pot laws and replacing them with Initiative 71 text?

Now, the good news – Congress may protect medical marijuana and industrial hemp states.  For years, marijuana advocates have pressed what’s become known as the Rohrabacher Amendment, or States Rights to Medical Marijuana.  This language has now been inserted into this trillion-dollar spending bill and it would protect states that have enacted regulatory programs for medical cannabis use from any federal interference.  This would include the traditional whole-plant medical marijuana states as well as the high-CBD oil-only states.  Similar language protects the states that have passed laws allowing for industrial hemp research.

Tribal marijuana sales may also be a cheaper recreational alternative, as their sales may not be subject to the high state excise and sales taxes on pot found in Colorado and Washington, just like the cigarette taxes they avoid on reservation lands now. Oregon US Attorney Amanda Marshall told ABC News that there is one tribe in Washington State and another tribe in California interested in marijuana legalization already.

Overall, it might be a good thing, this spending bill.  DC already has $25 decriminalization tickets for possession and maybe a good court battle for legalization.  Twenty-three medical states, eleven CBD states, and nineteen hemp states would be protected from the feds.  But we may not find out anytime soon… as of press time, Democrats are howling about another amendment tucked into the spending bill that would undo the restrictions on banks and derivatives trading that led to the 2008 economic collapse, a huge giveaway to Wall Street that could swing enough of Congress toward rejecting the bill and shutting down the federal government.

On the bright side, that includes the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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