Voters Said Yes, But D.C. And Congress Continue To Spar Over Pot In November, District of Columbia residents voted to legalize marijuana. Still, the measure's status remains in flux while the city fights against Congress for autonomy on the issue.
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Voters Said Yes, But D.C. And Congress Continue To Spar Over Pot

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Voters Said Yes, But D.C. And Congress Continue To Spar Over Pot

Voters Said Yes, But D.C. And Congress Continue To Spar Over Pot

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Voters in the nation's capital said yes last fall to legalizing marijuana, but it hasn't happened. That's because Congress doesn't want it to happen. Martin Austermuhle of member station WAMU reports.

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: One hundred-fifteen thousand and fifty votes - that's how many District of Columbia residents voted in favor of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in November, putting 70 percent of the city's voters behind the measure that permits residents to possess up to two ounces of pot and grow their own. But a month later, it took only 219 House votes and 56 Senate votes to throw the initiative's future into doubt and rekindle a long-standing fight between Congress and the city over how much power it has to govern itself.

DAVID GROSSO: I grew up here, so I said, here we go again.

AUSTERMUHLE: That's David Grosso, a member of the D.C. Council, the city's local legislature. He says Congressional meddling, like the move in December to block D.C. from implementing the voter-approved legalization measure is par for the course.

GROSSO: It's been the same thing over and over and over, where Congress thinks that they can meddle in our business and basically use us as a sort of Petri dish where they do things to us that they could never possibly do in their own jurisdiction. They'd be thrown out.

AUSTERMUHLE: Despite having an elected legislature and mayor, D.C. remains a federal city controlled by Capitol Hill. That means that Congress often weighs in on social issues like guns, drugs and abortion. Andy Harris is a Republican Congressman from Maryland's Eastern Shore and has led the effort to stop D.C. from legalizing marijuana. Harris says that he's concerned about the health impacts that legalization could have on children. As to the accusations that he's interfering in local D.C. affairs, he says the Constitution allows him to.

CONGRESSMAN ANDY HARRIS: You know, if somebody wants voting rights, you know, the Constitution is clear. They go to a state - not the federal enclave - and they have voting rights. If they're in the federal enclave then Congress is their local legislature.

AUSTERMUHLE: Maybe, but for Miguel Oyola who lives in suburban Virginia outside D.C., it's unfair that the city's residents can be overruled by Congress, especially a Congress where they have no voting representation.

MIGUEL OYOLA: I think the city has really spoke to what they want. And I think it's just really unfortunate, kind of, the position we're in right now with Congress and, you know, the back-and-forth with the House and the Senate and just really trying to push through what the people of the city have already spoke up on.

AUSTERMUHLE: Grosso is more blunt about it.

GROSSO: Most Republicans want less federal government. They want less intrusion, yet here they are, every single day of the year, thinking about how they can mess with us. They're just purely hypocritical, but that's no surprise.

AUSTERMUHLE: It's no surprise, he says, because it isn't new. In 1998, Republicans stopped the legalization of medical marijuana in D.C. despite it being approved by 69 percent of voters. It took 11 years until the prohibition was lifted and now over 2,000 residents use medical marijuana. D.C. officials are fighting back on marijuana legalization, saying they believe that Congress can't stop the voter-approved measure from taking effect. Adam Eidinger led the campaign for legalization and says that it has generated new energy in the fight for autonomy.

ADAM EIDINGER: I think we have been wounded here, but sometimes it takes, you know, being attacked to get people to respond and do what they should've done all along and stand up for their rights.

AUSTERMUHLE: Harris says that if D.C. moves forward on legalizing the possession of marijuana, House Republicans should consider suing the city. But even with that threat hanging over D.C.'s head, Grosso is still going a step further. This month he introduced a bill in the City Council that would allow retail sales of marijuana in the nation's capital.

For NPR News, I'm Martin Austermuhle in Washington.

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