Congress maintains ban on D.C. legalizing sales of recreational marijuana The so-called Harris Rider that prevents D.C. from legalizing recreational marijuana sales has been in effect since 2015, much to the chagrin of local officials.
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Congress maintains ban on D.C. legalizing sales of recreational marijuana

The so-called Harris Rider has blocked D.C. from legalizing sales of recreational marijuana since 2015. Get Budding/Unsplash / hide caption

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A draft federal spending bill unveiled by Democratic congressional leaders on Wednesday maintains a seven-year-old prohibition on D.C. legalizing recreational marijuana sales, again frustrating local efforts to tax and regulate sales that many states — including Maryland and Virginia — are currently pushing forward. It also maintains a longstanding provision that forbids the city from spending money to cover abortions for low-income women.

The $1.5 trillion, 2,741-page spending bill for the 2022 fiscal year faces a House vote as early as later today. It does not remove any of the so-called legacy policy riders, individual provisions that dictate what the federal government can and cannot do on hot-button issues like abortion funding.

Because D.C. is not a state, those same riders can be imposed on the city, and it was in 2015 that Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) inserted the rider prohibiting local lawmakers from moving forward on legalizing marijuana sales. That followed the approval by D.C. voters of Initiative 71, which legalized personal use, possession, home cultivation, and gifting of small amounts of marijuana.

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D.C. officials have since argued that not only is the Harris Rider an affront to the city's ability to govern itself, but it has trapped it in an increasingly untenable legal situation. Initiative 71 has created a growing industry of vendors, stores, and services that "gift" marijuana, but the Harris Rider has prevented the city from being able to tax or regulate them in any way.

There was growing optimism in 2020 when Democrats won both houses of Congress and the presidency that the rider would be lifted, but President Joe Biden never proposed it in his first budget. While House Democrats did remove the rider from the budget last year, but it was added back by the Senate and has since remained.

"In D.C., it shouldn't be called the black market. It should be called the Harris market. If there's any uptick in the black market, it's thanks to Harris," tweeted D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio on Wednesday morning.

"The congressional rider harms public safety in the District. I cannot be emphatic enough about this. Our inability to regulate the sale and distribution of cannabis in the District encourages the existence and expansion of illegal, so-called pop-ups where marijuana is sold illegally. These operations are not only unlawful, but they, in turn, attract violent crime, such as robberies. Robberies of the sellers. Robberies of the customers. Because the operations are illegal. And then, when the police arrest operators of the illegal pop-ups, the United States Attorney refuses to prosecute! This is like the wild west, and the Congressional rider is the reason for it," echoed D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in a statement.

At the same time, bills from Mayor Muriel Bowser and Mendelson to legalize sales and direct a large share of tax revenue to Black neighborhoods most impacted by the war on drugs have remained in a holding pattern for years. It was just last November that the council held its first public hearing on the measures, but the Harris Rider would prohibit Bowser from signing anything into law should it be passed by the council.

"I'm heartbroken because we now have more than a dozen states which are where we want to be on marijuana," said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in an interview with DCist/WAMU on legalization efforts.

That the Harris Rider remains in the spending bill also means that the window for any action at all on legalizing marijuana in D.C. could be quickly closing. The bill would remain in effect until October, a month before the midterm elections in which Republicans are hoping to take back the House.

"I don't know what's going to happen with the House of Representatives in November, but our window is super limited," said Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At Large) during an event hosted by a new marijuana-gifting advocacy group last month. "That has been one of the messages we have expressed to our allies in the Congress — it has to happen this calendar year or we're going to miss our window."

The move to keep the Harris Rider in place was cheered by Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization.

"Congress has made the right decision in preventing Big Tobacco, Alcohol, and Pharma from taking over our nation's capital with their latest addiction-for-profit scheme. Make no mistake – this is a hard fought, bipartisan victory for families and public health," he said in a statement.

It's not the first time that congressional Republicans have stood between D.C. residents and changes to marijuana laws. After voters approved medical marijuana in 1998, Republicans blocked the city from actually moving the program forward for almost 11 years. There are now more than 12,000 medical marijuana patients in D.C., and lawmakers are considering a number of steps that would make it easier to take part — including letting residents self-certify that they need medical marijuana, instead of requiring a doctor's recommendation.

"[Marijuana] reform continues to hold bipartisan support," tweeted Queen Adesuyi, a policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "Even so, D.C. has a right to set its own policies, & follow the will of voters. The practice of Congress using D.C. as a political playground MUST end — this is just one reason why the fight for statehood is so important."

This story is from, the local news site of WAMU.

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