Senate Democrats cut bill provision that kept D.C. from legalizing marijuana sales The House has already removed what was long known as the Harris Rider from the federal budget, and the Senate's move puts D.C. closer to being able to legalize marijuana sales.
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Senate Democrats cut bill provision that kept D.C. from legalizing marijuana sales

Possessing, using, and growing small amounts of marijuana has been legal in D.C. for six years, but efforts to legalize sales have been stymied by Congress. That may soon change, and the D.C. Council is preparing for it. Brett Levin/Flickr / hide caption

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Brett Levin/Flickr /

A package of spending bills unveiled by a U.S. Senate committee on Monday evening does not include language that had prohibited D.C. from legalizing the sale of marijuana for the last six years, lifting a significant roadblock to the city's plans to legalize and license dispensaries to sell the drug for recreational use.

Earlier this summer the House of Representatives had similarly done away with what was long known as the Harris Rider, named after Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.). Approved by Republican majorities in Congress shortly after D.C. voters legalized the possession, personal use, and home cultivation of small amounts of marijuana in 2014, the Harris Rider prohibited the city from moving forward on any efforts to further legalize recreational sales.

President Joe Biden kept the rider in his budget proposal to Congress, but Democrats in both chambers removed it. The fight isn't over yet, though — Congress still has to approve the budget, which is likely to happen in December. Once that happens, D.C. will be clear to move forward on legalizing sales, and lawmakers are already planning to hold a hearing in November on a bill that would do just that.

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In a statement, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton hailed what she said were a number of wins for the city in the spending bill, including continued funding for the TAG program that offers residents in-state tuition rates at public universities in the 50 states and further exempts D.C. from any federal government shutdowns through 2023. She also cited the removal of a longstanding and oft-controversial ban on D.C. using any money to subsidize abortions for low-income people.

"I am also very pleased the bill respects D.C.'s right to self-government by allowing D.C. to spend its local funds on abortions for low-income women and on recreational marijuana commercialization," she said. "With Democrats controlling the White House, House and Senate, we have the best opportunity in over a decade to enact a spending bill with no anti-democratic riders."

In a statement, pro-marijuana advocacy group NORML cheered the decision by Senate Democrats to scrap the Harris Rider.

"The omission of the D.C. rider acknowledges the local will of the residents of the District, who overwhelmingly favor retail marijuana sales. The only reason the District is unable to defy the federal government's marijuana prohibition policies in the same way that other states have is that it lacks statehood and is under direct oversight from Congress," the group said.

Marijuana advocates in D.C. have long argued that the rider not only infringes upon the city's right to govern itself, but has also helped fuel an illegal "gray market" of retailers and events where vendors sell expensive artifacts, stickers, and t-shirts and give gifts of marijuana. While giving away small amounts of marijuana is legal in D.C., police say the arrangements at these events and stores are not.

Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of D.C. Councilmembers have said they would like to legalize marijuana sales, much like more than a dozen states have done already. Locally, Virginia is on track to start legal sales in 2024, and legislators in Maryland say they will put the issue to voters next year. If and when the Harris Rider is lifted, Bowser would be allowed to sign any legislation passed by the council — and city agencies could start working to create the new legal marketplaces for marijuana.

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