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Advocates Fired Up as D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Avoids Appropriations Rider

Appropriations riders were not used as a blunt instrument -- this time. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee advanced a familiar slate of social policy riders for the District's budget on Wednesday, but one of the city's latest local policy initiatives appears safe in fiscal 2015.  

The Republican-backed bill would not block D.C. from implementing a law to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The decriminalization legislation, in the midst of a 60-day congressional review period, remains intact in the spending bill now headed for the full appropriations panel.  

"We have too many allies now," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said during an interview with CQ Roll Call shortly after a subcommittee voice vote to approve the spending bill. Norton theorized that because 18 other states have already voted to loosen criminal penalties on the drug, the House GOP would have looked "more unfair than usual" had they stepped in to try to stop it. "We didn't expect that there would be [a policy rider] because there are too many like us now."  

Among the groups backing the District on the decriminalization law are the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. Both civil rights groups backed the legislation, recently singled out for a House Oversight and Government Reform panel hearing , that would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil fine of $25.  

The ACLU and NAACP joined DC Vote and 41 other local and national organizations in delivering letters to all members of Congress on Tuesday, urging them to oppose policy riders that would undermine the District's local autonomy. The groups, collectively representing millions of Americans, pledged a united front in opposing measures that they say "target" the city.  

Despite the full court press to "Save D.C. Home Rule," House appropriators did exercise their right to intervene in how the District spends both its local and federal funds.  

The bill includes a rider that prevents the city from spending government funds, both local and federal, on abortion — except "where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest" — plus riders that forbid spending federal money on needle exchange and medical marijuana programs.  

The pot provision states that no federal funds in the appropriation "may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act."  

Rep. José E. Serrano, D-N.Y., a longtime champion of District autonomy and ranking member of the subcommittee, was among the Democrats who spoke in opposition to the large number of partisan riders attached to the bill during the hearing.  

"These provisions may represent red meat for some Republicans," Serrano said, "but for most Americans they represent exactly what is wrong with this Congress. Instead of working towards compromise, the majority has chosen to create an obstruction in the bill that will make it more difficult for the Appropriations Committee to do its job."  

Advocates of Home Rule remain vigilant as the spending bill heads to the full committee. More amendments affecting how D.C. spends its local funds could be added, or the marijuana language could be amended to extend to local funds.  

Appropriations riders are a strategy frequently used to block unfavorable local legislation. It took a decade, for instance, for medical marijuana backers to remove a rider preventing the District from moving forward with the system.  

“The Congress would never even consider provisions restricting the spending of local tax dollars in any other jurisdiction,” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry said in a statement advocating local autonomy. “Those who seek to use the District as their personal political playground should know Americans do not believe Congress should have a say in our local matters."