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'Rough Times Ahead' for District's Marijuana Law?

Norton is trying to protect the D.C. voters' will on pot. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and a few lawmakers from pot-friendly states, have high hopes that the House will not try to stop the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana for recreational use — but the rest of the chamber isn't ruling out the possibility of intervention.  

One of D.C.'s chief allies in Congress, Rep. José E. Serrano of New York, predicted "rough times ahead" for the District when it comes to appropriations riders, the tool Republicans usually use to sink social policies ranging from needle exchanges to abortions. When the senior House Democrat served as chairman of the subcommittee that oversees D.C.'s local spending he successfully eliminated all riders, but he forecasted challenges in the next Congress with the GOP in control of both chambers.  

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said, "it's all on the table," when pressed on whether a pot rider would appear. No one is predicting a formal resolution of disapproval during the 60-day review period for the measure, overwhelmingly approved by D.C. voters, that would legalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and some home cultivation for people 21 and over. Such legislation would have to pass both chambers and be signed by President Barack Obama, who has already warned Congress to keep its paws off local drug laws. Only three such resolutions have been enacted in 40 years of home rule.  

Rep. Trey Gowdy said he takes a "pretty dim view" of marijuana legalization, as a former federal prosecutor. The South Carolina Republican sits on the two committees that have taken an interest in pot policy — Judiciary, as well as Oversight and Government Reform — and told CQ Roll Call he fails to understand how states can trump federal anti-drug law.  

Legalizing marijuana in Congress' backyard could be a particularly tricky issue , Gowdy acknowledged. He declined to specifically weigh in on D.C.'s initiative, but indicated some deference to the will of local voters.  

"It's one of the few territories that's mentioned with specificity in the Constitution, so it is unique," he said. "But when I was the chairman of the D.C. subcommittee, I didn't meddle in their affairs. This is a little different, when you take something that is on its face against federal law and say that we're going to supersede it ...  I wouldn't support that effort if a state did it."  

Norton supports legalization as a smart policy to deter criminal drug convictions, and counter disproportionate arrest rates among blacks. She also builds the case for equality for the District by pointing out that 23 states have approved medical marijuana, 18 have decriminalized it and four states have legalized the drug.  

Colorado Democrat Jared Polis believes he has a working majority of House members who would try to block an amendment like the one Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., successfully attached to a spending bill this summer in an effort to prevent D.C. from decriminalizing weed.  

"I would not have the nerve to say it," Norton later said, of Polis' prediction. "I certainly want to believe it."  

California Republican Dana Rohrabacher joins Norton in asking Congress to stay out of the matter, and urges the GOP to take a softer stance on marijuana. He thinks allowing localities to set their own rules fits with Republicans' limited-government philosophy and would be smart politics with public opinion favoring legalized marijuana.  

“We are pleased, but not surprised, to see members of both parties speaking out forcefully against efforts to overturn DC’s Initiative 71,” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry said in a statement. "Members of Congress surely understand that an attempt by the national legislature to reverse the outcome of a local or state election violates the principles of federalism, and would insult fundamental American notions of representative democracy.”  

Having Democrats in control of the Senate for the rest of lame duck gives Norton some peace of mind. Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, who holds the gavel on the Senate Appropriations Committee until Republicans assume control in January, has said before that D.C. should retain its jurisdiction over decisions made by voters. Discussions between the House and Senate are under way on spending legislation, and the final bill language is expected to be made public in early December.  

"Rest assured that this could start all over again with the 114th Congress,” Norton warned on Thursday. "The issue is not closed."  

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