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Rider Blocking D.C. Pot Legalization on the Table

Harris' amendment is being discussed in negotiations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An amendment blocking the legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia is on the table as appropriators negotiate bills and policy riders to incorporate in the year-end spending package.  

"It seems like the marijuana issue has been kicked up to the 'big four.' So that'll get settled," Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., said Tuesday, referring to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees who are negotiating the spending package. Crenshaw heads the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over District funding. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., prohibits federal and local funds from being used to legalize or reduce penalties for marijuana possession, use and distribution. Harris' amendment was included in the spending bill  that passed the House in June, but was not included in the Senate version.  

If enacted, the amendment would reverse the decriminalization of marijuana , which took effect this summer, and block an attempt to legalize the drug in the District. In November, D.C. voters overwhelmingly voted for the legalization measure .  

Crenshaw said the top members of the House and Senate Financial Services subcommittees met before Thanksgiving to resolve discrepancies between their bills, but they could not come to an agreement on the marijuana issue, as well as a handful of others, so the provision was sent to the "big four."  

As Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate committee, and their ranking members debate bills to fund the government, they are also debating the marijuana rider.  

“We can’t discuss details because they’re in negotiations,” Rogers said Wednesday when asked about the marijuana rider. “Everything’s on the table because we’re meeting with the Senate on all issues.”  

Jennifer Hing, Rogers' spokeswoman, wrote in an email, "We are fighting to include all House riders."  

Though Rogers is pushing for the amendment to be included in the final bill, he faces a staunch opponent in Mikulski. According to a Senate appropriations aide, Mikulski opposes the amendment and worked to make sure it was not included in the Senate version.  

Proponents for legalization in the District have been preparing for this scenario and are confident that the issue is not make-or-break for Republicans, and will therefore not be included in the final spending bill.  

“I don’t think it’s true that Republican leadership will fight for this. I think that is not accurate. I think it’s possible that Mr. Rogers is pushing this issue. I think Mr. Harris, who owns the amendment, wants this to be included, but beyond that nobody is interested," said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance in a phone interview. "The omnibus negotiations are not going to break down over disagreement over the D.C. initiative.”  

Collins has been the point person on the Hill for ensuring that Congress does not block marijuana legalization in D.C. Though he has not met with Rogers or Republican leadership himself, he said conversations with rank-and-file Republicans — and leadership's reluctance to take a hard-line stance on legalization in the past — indicate GOP leaders will not push for the rider to be included.  

“This is a very small number. One or two Republicans are pushing this issue," said Collins. "So in that sense, I’m hopeful the push-back and support that we have had, the push-back that will come from Senate Democrats, will be what wins out in the end.”  

The Senate appropriations aide said the fate of the marijuana rider will be clear at the end of this week, when the spending package is expected to be complete.  

But even if Senate Democrats successfully block the amendment in the appropriations negotiations, Harris has said he will work to block legalization in the next Congress. Harris said Tuesday, “I’m sure if we don’t get something good this time, we’ll try something next year."  

Correction, 10:15 a.m. A previous version of this story misstated which funds would be affected by the amendment.  

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