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Negotiators Strike Deal to Target Tax and Sale of Marijuana in D.C.

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Congress plans to block the District of Columbia from implementing a system to tax and regulate sales of legalized marijuana in the city, a source close to appropriations negotiations said Tuesday.  

The news came hours after a rumored deal between Democrats and Republicans on an appropriations rider addressing pot policy in the District ignited the marijuana advocacy community.  

Marijuana legalization advocates said they caught wind of a potential deal between House and Senate leadership that would block legalization of small amounts of marijuana but allow the decriminalization of pot — which emerged intact from congressional review in July — to remain in effect, and they're outraged. They stormed a Heritage Foundation event on pot policy Tuesday to heckle Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., a chief opponent of loosening drug laws, and visited the offices of Democratic leaders to plead for the party to defend Referendum 71, an initiative to legalize small amounts of marijuana that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November.  

A source close to the negotiations said the deal reached by Democrats and Republicans does not prevent D.C. from implementing legalization. Instead, language in the amendment prohibits the District from passing additional legislation to “future regulate and tax marijuana or permit the sale of marijuana.”  

"The language in itself is not consistent with the principles of home rule," said the source, "but preventing the carrying out of Referendum 71 would be an even more unsatisfactory outcome."  

The agreement comes after days of intense appropriations negotiations for the spending package known as the “cromnibus." Negotiators indicated they were also considering an amendment sponsored by Harris that would prohibit federal and local funds from being used to legalize or reduce penalties for the drug.  

“This is absolutely revolting what they're doing," Adam Eidinger of the DC Cannabis Campaign said in a phone interview. "Through a secret legislative process with no hearings, Congress, it seems, has made a deal to overturn an election we had a month ago. … It’s just outrageous.”  

Harris’ amendment was first directed at decriminalization legislation passed by the D.C. Council over the summer, and though it was added to the appropriations bill in the House, it was not included in the Senate version, nor as part of the continuing resolution that funds the government through Thursday. In November, District residents overwhelmingly voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana, reinvigorating Harris’ fight to block relaxed marijuana policies in the District.  

So, his rider was on the table once again in the most recent round of negotiations. The top Democrats in negotiations are against it. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., opposed the rider and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week she was concerned about protecting home rule on this issue. But House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., worked hard to keep the rider in the bill.  

Harris’ staunch opposition to loosening drug laws earned him an invite to the Tuesday morning Heritage Foundation event on marijuana policy, where he talked about efforts to educate Americans on how legalizing pot for adults would inevitably harm children. “Because it will have a spillover effect, and there are numerous studies that show it,” Harris told an auditorium of about 50 people that included, according to Eidinger, two dozen other pro-pot protesters.  

“Legalization is about D.C. home rule … the people have spoken,” one female demonstrator yelled, emboldened by rumors of the rider. Those holding signs printed with messages such as, “Marijuana is not meth,” and “Harris wants marijuana users in jail,” were escorted out of the event, according to attendees.  

Harris continued speaking, unfazed by opponents. “It should be intuitively obvious to everyone that if you legalize marijuana for adults more children will use marijuana,” he said, “because the message that it’s dangerous will be blunted.”  

After leaving the Heritage Foundation, Eidinger headed straight to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office. Eidinger said after exiting the Nevada Democrat’s office, he met with a staffer, who did not know about the deal but would pass on his concerns.  

Eidinger said he told the staffer, “I don’t think you have any idea how this is going to demoralize young voters and how you’re sealing your fate for 2016. This is unheard of to people outside of D.C., this idea that you can overturn an election. And when people learn that, they become really, really angry and really demoralized.”  

Activists, including Eidinger, criticized the closed-door appropriations negotiations about the fate of the District’s legalization initiative. They are calling for an open, public discussion of pot legalization in the District.  

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has voiced support for allowing the District to determine its own legalization policy, echoed that argument when asked Tuesday about the potential  deal.  

“I would object to that,” Paul told CQ Roll Call. “I’m not voting for [the spending package] anyway because I think it’s a bad way to run government, to throw all your bills together, wait ‘til the deadline, and then in the dead of night people stick stuff in there like this that none of the rest of the ordinary members would have a say over. So no, I’ll be a 'no' vote.”  

Activists are expecting Democrats to hail this deal as a victory and to argue that they compromised with Republicans and were able to maintain decriminalization in the District. But proponents of legalization view the potential deal as a complete surrender to Republicans, not a compromise.  

“This is not like Democrats have got a deal or come away with some sort of victory,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s no victory here. This is caving to the Republicans’ position.”  

Ultimately, to the activists, this rumored deal threatens the democratic process.  

”They should shut the government down over this," Eidinger said. "If you're not willing to defend the results of the an election, what is the point of having elections?”  

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