A congressional lawmaker representing Washington, D.C. tells Marijuana Moment that she’s “really disappointed” that Democratic House and Senate majorities failed to remove an ongoing rider blocking the District from allowing recreational cannabis commerce as part of an omnibus spending bill that was released on Tuesday.
While advocates and stakeholders have largely focused on the exclusion of cannabis banking language from the appropriations legislation, the fact that the D.C. rider was maintained in the final deal stings differently, especially considering that both the House and Senate had omitted it from their respecting spending bills that advanced earlier this year.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said in a phone interview with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday that she didn’t necessarily fault Democratic leadership—saying she’s “afraid they had no choice” given GOP opposition, and that “the final bill had to have the agreement of both sides.”
“Insisting on a specific provision would not have gotten us across” to passing the spending package, the congresswoman said.
But with Democrats in control of both chambers and the presidency, it’s a frustrating setback for advocates.
Norton said that she is “really disappointed that we were not able to get this rider off since we control the House, the Senate and the presidency.”
I’m pleased the final FY 23 DC Appropriations contains significant victories for DC, including $40 million for DCTAG, but I’m deeply disappointed it maintains the marijuana and abortion riders.
— Eleanor #DCStatehood Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) December 21, 2022
The congresswoman talked about her frustration with the final appropriations products just minutes after the D.C. Council voted to send a bill to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) that would fundamentally change the District’s existing medical cannabis program.
Part of that legislation—which would eliminate cannabis business licensing caps, provide tax relief to operators, promote social equity and more—would also codify that adults can locally self-certify as medical marijuana patients. Norton had previously told Marijuana Moment that she viewed the reform as an effective workaround to the congressional rider—but she said on Tuesday that she didn’t think it would be sustainable in the long-term.
On the federal level, it would have helped in congressional negotiations if President Joe Biden’s own budgets over the last two years hadn’t maintained the D.C. rider, she said.
“He seems to have been for the rider, and that didn’t help us at all,” she said.
There are a number of practical implications that go along with the ongoing spending rider, which has been in effect for years despite D.C. voters approving a 2014 ballot initiative to legalize possession and personal cultivation.
The congresswoman said that one of the key consequences is that, unlike other states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, D.C. will not “be able to tax this substance.”
“It’s a real law for us, with anything that is so widely used—and yet you can tax it because it can’t be sold” under the rider, she said.
She added that while this D.C. development is far from ideal, she does feel that not all cannabis reform will be derailed in the next Congress, even with Republicans in control of the House. “Not all of them are against cannabis sales,” she said. “Some of this is happening in their own districts, so I’m not giving up on this even though we’ve lost the House.”
After Biden issued a proclamation in October pardoning Americans who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses, as well as people who’ve violated the law in D.C., Norton called on the president to go further by federally legalizing cannabis and letting the District establish a commercial cannabis market and grant clemency on its own.
The congresswoman said the ongoing local ban, which was maintained in Biden’s first two budget proposals, represents a “shocking violation of D.C. home rule by a Democratic administration.”
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A coalition of local, state and national advocacy organizations recently asked the U.S. attorney general to formally adopt a policy of non-enforcement to allow the District to legalize marijuana sales even in light of the ongoing congressional ban.
A poll released in September found that D.C. voters strongly support marijuana legalization and oppose a crackdown on the cannabis “gifting” market that’s emerged in the absence of regulated sales.
Bowser, Norton and other elected officials in the city have routinely criticized Congress for singling out the District and depriving it of the ability to do what a growing number of states have done without federal interference.
Norton told Marijuana Moment in an earlier phone interview in July that she was “fairly optimistic” that the rider would not be included in the final spending package. She added that the D.C. self-certification policy is an “effective workaround” until then.
Meanwhile, the D.C. mayor signed a bill in July that bans most workplaces from firing or otherwise punishing employees for marijuana use.
The reform is designed to build upon on a previous measure lawmakers approved to protect local government employees against workplace discrimination due to their use of medical cannabis.
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