Marijuana advocates protested in front of the White House in 2016, demanding that the drug be legalized federally. For almost five years D.C. has been prohibited by Congress from legalizing pot sales.
Any hopes that D.C. may soon legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use are being put on hold again.
As part of a $1.3 trillion must-pass federal spending bill unveiled Monday night, Congress will continue to prohibit D.C. from passing any bill legalizing or regulating marijuana sales, which Mayor Muriel Bowser and multiple members of the D.C. Council have said they would like to do. The prohibition — which was first put in place in 2015 — will now extend through at least September 2020.
The news that the prohibition was again included in the spending bill — which Congress is expected to approve on Tuesday — dashes the rising optimism felt earlier this year by D.C. officials when the ban wasn't even included in the House's version of the measure, largely because Democrats controlled the chamber for the first time in years. But it was instead inserted into the Senate version, and remained there after negotiators from both chambers hashed out a compromise bill needed to prevent another government shutdown later this week.
"Ridiculous," tweeted Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday night. "We should have the right to implement #SafeCannabis just like other jurisdictions do to promote safety for their residents."
Bowser introduced a bill in May that would have allowed recreational marijuana sales in D.C., with revenues from taxes used to pay for housing programs. A similar bill was introduced earlier in the year by Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has pursued similar measures every year since 2014, when D.C. voters approved a ballot measure that legalized the possession, personal use, home cultivation, and gifting of small amounts of marijuana — but not sales.
That's created something of a growing and unregulated "gray market" where vendors sell regular items like stickers or baked goods and give a "gift" of marijuana with it. D.C. Police have occasionally cracked down on marijuana pop-up events, and have more recently expressed concern over robberies, shootings, and other violent incidents at some of the impromptu marketplaces.
The prohibition on D.C. legalizing marijuana sales — known as a "budget rider" — had initially been sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), who said that marijuana use is harmful and called D.C. residents' vote in 2014 on marijuana legalization a "bad decision."
And it wasn't the first time Congress acted to stop D.C. from easing its pot laws. After D.C. residents approved medical marijuana at the ballot box in 1998, congressional Republicans prohibited the city from spending any money to actually implement the program. The ban remained in place for a decade, and the first legal sale of medical marijuana only happened in 2013. As of last month, there were 6,179 registered patients in the program.
While the ongoing ban means D.C. can't take any real steps to legalize marijuana sales, Attorney General Karl Racine said earlier this year the Council could hold hearings on Bowser and Grosso's bills. That's a change from early 2015, when the Council called off a planned hearing on a pot legalization measure after Racine warned lawmakers that even that amount to a violation of the congressional prohibition.
Eleven states across the U.S. have legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational uses, and New Jersey voters are set to decide next year whether the Garden State should follow suit. Lawmakers in both Maryland and Virginia have started discussing possible legalization, though it wouldn't happen for a few years. Nationally, polling shows that two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization.
D.C., of course, is in a category of its own — a city with a locally elected mayor and council that still needs Congress to agree to any legislation that is passed. And even though specific D.C. bills are rarely vetoed on Capitol Hill, lawmakers in Congress can still exercise their authority over the District through annual spending bills.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton hailed certain provisions of the spending bill, saying it increases the payment to the city for handling security at certain federal events, secures funding for the program that gives D.C. residents money to help pay for tuition at state universities across the country, and again exempts the city from any federal government shutdown over the next few years.
But she did criticize the bill for renewing funding for the private-school voucher program, and for again including a rider that prohibits D.C. from spending any money to help subsidize abortions for low-income women. That also drew opposition from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware).
"While the Hyde Amendment withholds federal dollars from coverage for abortions in most circumstances, every state has long had the option to use its own funds to provide broader coverage in its Medicaid program," he tweeted. "This policy deprives residents of D.C. of that same freedom to govern themselves and violates the promise of home rule. It's a policy that should not continue."
In a statement, Norton said the marijuana legalization and abortion riders would likely remain in place while power was divided on Capitol Hill.
"Until Democrats take the Senate, it will be difficult to eliminate anti-home-rule riders," she said.