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House Passes Bill That Allow Medical Marijuana In District Of Columbia Needle Exchange, Vouchers

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UPDATE: THE bill passed Thursday evening.

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The House began debating a bill Thursday that dances on almost every nerve in the social conservative body politic, touching on everything from abortion to needle exchange, gay and lesbian rights, charter schools and medical marijuana.

"We strongly oppose these changes," declares the Republican committee report. "We do not believe increasing the availability of abortions or medical marijuana will improve the District of Columbia."

The Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill includes social policy changes that will apply mostly to the District of Columbia, but will also touch on national programs as well.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress control of Washington, D.C.'s budget and the body uses that control to dictate social policy within its borders. The Democratic budget being debated on the House floor Thursday would largely return control of social policy decisions to the District of Columbia's elected government.

The bill also wipes out funding for the national anti-drug media campaign. Gone will be the ads showing potheads accidentally running over a little girl at a drive-thru or otherwise warning kids away from drugs. Studies showed that after hundreds of millions of dollars, the ads couldn't show that they led to a decrease in drug use and may have slightly encouraged kids to get high.

"If the best that can be said about the youth media campaign is that there is evidence that it has a `weak' association with anti-drug attitudes, while a comprehensive multi-year evaluation with more extensive data found no evidence of any positive effect at all, consideration must be given to shifting the substantial resources used for the advertising campaign to other uses," reads the majority report. "That is what the Committee recommendation seeks to do."

Bashing the media campaign was one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. The GOP reported that it supported "reducing funding for the media campaign which has produced limited results at best."

The Committee still provides the drug czar's office with $20 million for media efforts -- $50 million less than last year -- but wants only limited advertising directed at parents, not at teens.

Previous federal budgets have allowed Congress to dictate policy in the District of Columbia by preventing the city from using local funds for programs the GOP found objectionable.

On the House floor on Thursday, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate from the District, decried the colonial relationship. "It's not your business to deal with the health of my citizens," she said, referring to GOP efforts to block needle exchange programs in the city.

"We are American citizens and we demand to be treated like American citizens," she said. "Why are you having anything to do with the D.C. budget?"

The GOP has been pushing to require the District to continue with a school-voucher program to which the city objects. The bill allows students who are currently enrolled in the program to continue, but cuts off further access, a compromise to which Mayor Adrian Fenty had agreed.

Medical marijuana advocates have a gift in the bill, too. In 1998, the District held a referendum on legalizing medical marijuana but Congress blocked the city from even counting the votes. A court ultimately ruled the votes could be counted regardless and it showed the initiative carried with 69 percent of the vote. Congress still banned the city from implementing it.

If the House bill becomes law, the referendum will be implemented and medical marijuana will become legal in the nation's capital.

The bill also lifts a ban on the use of local funds for domestic partner registration and benefits and allows the city to go forward with recognizing same-sex marriages that take place in other states. The ban on funding for needle exchange is also lifted.

Previous budgets had prevented the city from using its own funds for abortion procedures. That prohibition, too, is lifted.

The GOP took the fight over the various social policy changes to the Rules Committee earlier this week, but amendments addressing them were rejected along mostly party line votes. On the House floor on Thursday, GOP members of Congress declared that it was ironic that they weren't allowed to vote on their amendments on the House floor, considering that Holmes Norton was decrying the state of congressional control of the city as undemocratic.

Holmes Norton was unmoved. "Your lip service to local control, the time for that has run out," she said. "We have profound disagreements on some issues, from abortion to vouchers. Go home and deal with them there. Allow us to deal with these issues in our own way as a local jurisdiction. I appreciate that the Rules Committee has indeed respected our citizenship and I demand that other members of Congress do so as well."

Jeff Muskus contributed reporting

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