Congress overrides DC voters, keeps sales of marijuana illegal in District

A GOP-backed ban on weed sales in Washington, D.C., was preserved in a sprawling government funding bill passed by Congress on Thursday, despite opposition from advocates who say the provision overrides the will of the District’s residents years after they voted to legalize marijuana.

The Harris Rider, a provision barring the legalization of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital named after its chief proponent, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), sailed through the Senate late Thursday, a day after passing the House, as part of a larger $1.5 trillion spending omnibus package to fund the government through fiscal year 2022.

Congressional Democrats had pushed to do away with the provision, opting not to include the rider in the government funding bills unveiled by appropriators in both chambers last year. But negotiators say the rider was reinstalled in appropriations after sharp opposition from Republicans.

“We don’t like the fact it’s there. But it was a choice between providing D.C. and the American people with funding for their big priorities and still having them and not having them,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, told The Hill ahead of the vote on Thursday. 

“Republicans were the ones who insisted. They were ready to shut down the government,” said Van Hollen, whose panel handles D.C. appropriations.

Harris fought for the rider back in 2014, the same year nearly two-thirds of D.C. voters voted to legalize marijuana for adult use in a ballot initiative. 

Congress has since blocked the district from adhering to the will of the voters in each annual spending package, even as the issue appears to have fallen through the cracks in spending negotiations, with a number of members saying this week they were either not following the status of the rider or unaware of its existence.

In remarks to The Hill last week, Harris voiced strong opposition to the prospect of the rider not being included in the package. At the time, he said he didn’t know if it would be in the final bill because he hadn’t “been following it.”

“It’s a shame for the citizens of D.C. I mean, there’s more and more evidence that recreational marijuana is not a good idea,” said Harris, who is also the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration. 

While District residents are allowed to grow and consume their own cannabis, they cannot buy or sell it under the Harris rider. Marijuana businesses use a loophole in the law to “gift” weed to customers while bundling it with another product or service, creating a gray market that D.C. cannot tax or regulate. 

The rider’s inclusion dealt a crushing blow to legalization advocates, who saw its removal as one of the most achievable wins on legalizing marijuana that Democrats could secure. Some advocates believed that Republicans wouldn’t draw a red line over the issue, as 18 states have legalized recreational weed and GOP voters’ support for legalization has grown significantly since 2014. 

“I’m surprised and deeply disappointed by both the House and Senate’s inability to negotiate on behalf of Washingtonians, especially on one of the most bipartisan issues in the country,” said Queen Adesuyi, senior national policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Advocates pointed to a November Gallup poll showing that a record 68 percent of respondents support legalizing marijuana nationally, including 83 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans. 

But they privately expressed concerns about just how hard Democrats would fight to remove the Harris rider, given that President Biden’s own budget proposal included it. The defeat throws into question Democrats’ ability to pass a sweeping marijuana legalization package, a priority for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

“The hope is that this is not indicative of congressional leaders’ commitment to marijuana justice, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this was a serious missed opportunity to stand behind marijuana justice, as well as democracy,” Adesuyi said. 

D.C. officials have been pushing Congress to remove the rider, arguing that the cash-only gray market has prompted an uptick in robberies and other violent crimes.

Advocacy groups pushed that message in a last-minute bid to win over lawmakers. Earlier this month, a coalition of more than 50 pro-legalization groups, including labor unions, liberty organizations and criminal justice reform groups, sent a letter to appropriators warning that the current marijuana rules lead to increased crime in the D.C. area. 

“Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the gray market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model,” the groups wrote. “Such a model would free up law enforcement resources to focus on threats to public safety.”

U.S. Cannabis Council CEO Steven Hawkins said in a statement Wednesday that the rider has “created a harmful underground market that operates without any standards or safeguards and is at odds with the will of local voters.”

D.C. lawmakers had been preparing for the possibility that Congress would remove the rider, holding a meeting in November discussing how they should regulate marijuana sales and spend additional tax dollars. 

“I am incensed to see that Congress continues to thwart the overwhelming majority of District voters who support recreational cannabis legalization and regulation,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tweeted Wednesday.

Tags Andy Harris Appropriations Budget Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer D.C. Joe Biden Marijuana laws Washington

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