D.C. Pols Fight GOP Marijuana Legalization Ban

12/16/2014 05:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Ignoring an effort among congressional Republicans to block marijuana legalization in the District of Columbia in the recently passed “cromnibus” spending bill, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) says he intends to submit the new law to Congress anyway.

“The Chairman’s position is that it is his duty to transmit the initiative to Congress and that he intends to do so,” Alana Intrieri, legislative counsel to Mendelson, told The Huffington Post in an email Tuesday.

Though the city is mostly autonomous, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress final say over local laws, which Republicans sometimes block by forbidding the city to use funds to carry them out. Congress has 60 days to veto any city legislation once the council submits it for review. If the House and Senate do nothing, then city bills become law.

There is disagreement over what will happen next to the pot referendum.

Mendelson has said that if Initiative 71 -- which D.C. voters approved last month, and which legalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District -- makes it through the congressional review process, the District would not be required to spend any money on legalization. In other words, the move to obstruct pot legalization in D.C. would be unsuccessful.

A spokesman for Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican leading the congressional anti-pot effort, told HuffPost Tuesday that the review period is irrelevant because the cromnibus forbids the city to "enact" a new law relaxing penalties for drugs that are illegal under federal law.

The spokesman also noted that Congress successfully used riders like the one in the cromnibus to stop the city from legalizing medical marijuana from 1998 through 2009.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The office of the D.C. attorney general said Friday that it is reviewing the legislation "to assess how it may provide District policymakers opportunities to implement the will of the people reflected in Initiative 71." The office had no comment on Tuesday.

Multiple congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), support Mendelson’s view, saying that there’s a loophole in the language used in the spending bill’s D.C. marijuana rider and that the law should be allowed to move forward.

That loophole arises from language that reads differently in two pieces of legislation -- the omnibus spending bill and a separate rider introduced by Harris to block the city's successful weed decriminalization law. That rider has passed the House but not the Senate. The text of the omnibus says that no funds “may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties" associated with the recreational use of drugs illegal under federal law. Harris' rider, however, uses the phrase "carry out" instead of "enact."

The question, then, is whether Initiative 71 should be considered "enacted" as of last month's midterm elections, or whether the "enacting" will not happen until the D.C. Council transmits the initiative to Congress for review.

"If Republicans really believed their rhetoric against big government, and against government intrusion in personal lives, then the Republicans in Congress would not be overturning a citizens' initiative, or telling a city council that it may not regulate the sale of marijuana,” Mendelson said.

Last month, nearly 70 percent of voters in the nation’s capital approved of Initiative 71, which provides for the legalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use while still banning sales.

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