Congress Won’t Fight D.C. Weed Bill

Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:29pm

Even though residents of Washington, D.C., are on the verge of being able to legally buy marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol, Congress is unlikely to put up much of a fight.

Last week, the D.C. Council passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana for chronically ill patients. The legislation, though groundbreaking, is very strict: Patients will be limited to, at most, 4 ounces each month and will be prohibited from growing their own marijuana. Instead, the city will set up a handful of dispensaries where they can buy the drug.

The bill is now set to be signed by Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), which will start a 30-day review period during which Congress can rescind the law. But while many Members of Congress would never admit to supporting such a bill, they are unlikely to take any steps to stop the progressive law from taking effect.

The reason is twofold: A bill rescinding the D.C. law has slim chances of getting to the floor in a Democratic-controlled Congress. In addition, Members don’t have much to gain by taking up the fight.

“There are some issues that are big election issues — choice for women is still an issue,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles the city’s budget. “Medical marijuana is not really an issue. Also, I think we’ve been able to isolate these issues to the point where Mrs. Smith somewhere in Iowa” doesn’t think her Member of Congress should change D.C. laws.

Serrano is part of the reason that the D.C. Council was able to pass the law in the first place; last year, he successfully fought to remove long-standing riders from the city’s budget that stifled several initiatives, including medical marijuana. Now, the city is finally acting on a 12-year-old referendum that found that a majority of residents supported legalizing medical marijuana.

But some Members think the riders should never have been removed in the first place. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, said she plans to try to get the medical marijuana ban back into the fiscal 2011 appropriations bill.

“I fully expect there will be an amendment to this year’s Financial Services Appropriations bill to prevent support for the sale, distribution and use of so-called medical marijuana in the District of Columbia,” she said in an e-mail. “It is completely unreasonable for tax dollars to support drug use in DC, and the policy runs counter to innumerable federal efforts to limit the use of illegal drugs in our country.”

But in an interview Friday, Serrano insisted the city’s budget would stay clean. Indeed, now that the rider is removed, it would be difficult for Members to reinsert it — especially in the same Congress, with the same Members who removed it in the first place.

“We’ve been able to get rid of all of them. You now would have to put them back,” said Serrano, referring to not only the medical marijuana ban but also bans on needle exchange and city spending on abortions. “We would have to forcefully — and with a lack of respect — put them back.”

Of course, Members who are against the D.C. medical marijuana bill also have other avenues for opposition. Congress has 30 legislative days to review every D.C. law, giving Members the option of killing the legislation before it’s ever enacted. But such a move is almost impossible; Congress has to pass a resolution of disapproval through both chambers during that period. The last time Members succeeded in doing so was almost 20 years ago.

Members can also introduce a stand-alone bill simply prohibiting any marijuana sales, much like the current efforts of pro-gun Democrats and Republicans to loosen D.C.’s gun laws. But so far, no one has expressed an interest in writing such a bill. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), for example, said in an e-mail last week that he remained “opposed to establishing marijuana dispensaries in DC” but wasn’t planning to lead a fight against it.

“I have no plans to introduce legislation to abolish DC’s policy,” he said, “but will carefully consider any relevant legislation that comes to the floor for a vote.”

But even if Culberson or other opponents planned to introduce a bill, Democratic leaders would be unlikely to bring it to the floor, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said.

“I certainly don’t expect the Democratic House and Senate — which have strong commitments to democratic self-government in the District — to allow any kind of overturn of our medical marijuana initiative,” she said. “It is Congress’ action that enabled the District to do what it is doing today.”

Still, the bill might have problems in another branch of government: The Washington Post reported last week that the legislation might violate the District Human Rights Act. The act prohibits employers from asking for criminal arrests that are more than 10 years old. But the new bill states that all employees of the new marijuana dispensaries cannot have any felony or misdemeanor convictions of drug-related offenses on their record.