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How Will GOP Congress Approach D.C. Marijuana Legalization?

Eidinger, left, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign and Burnett, vice chairman, celebrate an early win. (Hannah Hess/CQ Roll Call)

The District of Columbia completed its paradigm shift on marijuana policy Tuesday night, with 64 percent of voters electing to legalize a drug the city decriminalized in July. But whether a Republican-controlled Congress will allow liberal marijuana laws to stand in the capital remains to be seen.  

At a victory party for Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, the chairman of the D.C. Council acknowledged the Senate's shift to a GOP majority would have him thinking about whether there was anything strategic the District could do before sending the bill to Capitol Hill.  

"I don't think there is," Democrat Phil Mendelson told CQ Roll Call. "I think it just has to be transmitted." Fifteen years ago, when Republicans in Congress blocked the District from counting votes on an initiative to legalize medical marijuana, it might have been hard to imagine a dispensary would eventually be selling pot to patients just a few blocks from the Capitol. But the general manager of Metropolitan Wellness Center, located on Barracks Row, was among those celebrating the victory on election night.  

"It's official -- I think we just legalized it in D.C.," announced Dr. Malik Burnett, vice chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, to the rowdy crowd  of more than 150 supporters crowded in the basement of Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights. "We're about to put marijuana prohibition to an end federally and it all started here in D.C."  

National advocates hope that's the reality, and were heartened when Sen. Rand Paul told CQ Roll Call earlier in the day that he thinks the will of the voters should be allowed to stand. The Kentucky Republican is the ranking member of a subpanel with oversight of D.C., though it isn't clear whether he would hold the gavel in the 114th Congress.  

"Congress has a legitimate role under the Constitution and home rule to review our statutes and, so I have to give that some thought in terms of how we proceed," Mendelson said, reflecting on the District's unique relationship with the Hill. "It's my intention that since the voters have spoken, that we have to honor what they've done, so we'll see."  

Initiative 71 legalizes possession of up to two ounces of marijuana outside one’s home for personal use and allows D.C. residents to grow their own weed inside, while restricting use for residents under 21. Bowser voted for the initiative and said she will work with the council on legislation to legalize, tax and regulate sales of marijuana.  

"One step at a time," Bowser said, when asked if she was prepared to defend the law from opponents in Congress. She did not speculate as to what the sales tax should be, a question that councilmembers mulled during a recent hearing.  

The White House and the Justice Department have taken a hands-off approach on laws regulating the sale of marijuana in Colorado and the state of Washington. President Barack Obama specifically warned  the House against intervening in D.C.'s decriminalization bill this summer. The ballot referendum could set up a potent opportunity for the legislative branch to weigh in, predicted Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority.  

"With marijuana legal in the federal government's backyard, it's going to be increasingly difficult for national politicians to continue ignoring the growing majority of voters who want to end prohibition," Angell said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. "I've been saying for a while that 2016 presidential candidates need to start courting the cannabis constituency, and now the road to the White House quite literally travels through legal marijuana territory."  

Pot proponents in the District declared an early victory on their referendum, celebrating legalized weed shortly after 10 p.m., with less than one third of the District's 143 precincts reporting. According to initial results, 64 percent of voters supported the initiative, while 28 percent cast votes against it. Proponents see it as win for social justice and potential impetus for Obama to lift penalties on people charged with marijuana-related offenses.  

Beer sloshed as the crowd raised fists and pint glasses chanting: "Pardon them!"  

The man who launched the drive to put the referendum the ballot, local activist Adam Eidinger, hugged supporters and confidently declared that Capitol Hill would not interfere with the measure. He told CQ Roll Call that he might challenge Maryland Republican Andy Harris for his House seat in 2016 if the congressman opposed this measure, as he did the District's decriminalization law. Eidinger also predicts the measure could propel federal action to decriminalize pot.  

"This sort of patchwork of state laws is going to go away when the feds finally address the issue," Eidinger said in an interview. "There will be no need for, you know, 50 different policies on marijuana and medical marijuana."  

If the bill survives a 60-day review period and becomes law, the District would join Washington and Colorado in legalizing the drug. Oregon and Alaska also voted on state-wide marijuana legalization initiatives on Tuesday. Guam voted to legalize medical weed, while Florida voters rejected medical marijuana. Oregon has passed its pot proposal.  

Eidinger was hopeful more states would swing in the direction of D.C. "It needs to be a national narrative," he said.  

Related: Could Pot Become Legal in Nation’s Capital? Wells, Civil Rights Groups Push for Potent D.C. Pot Bill If D.C. Decriminalizes Marijuana, Will Congress' Reaction Be a Buzz Kill? Marijuana Legalization Advocates Fired Up in Northwest D.C. Rand Paul: Let D.C. Legalize Marijuana, If Voters Want Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.