Heard on the Hill

Congressional fight over DC weed legalization could get sticky

District allows possession of small amounts of marijuana, but wants ability to tax sales

A U.S. flag redesigned with marijuana leaves flies over a protest in front of the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal to fully legalize marijuana in the District of Columbia could set up another clash with Congress over cannabis laws, so maybe don’t go investing in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Cap’n Crunch cereal just yet.

Before the District goes up in smoke, Congress, which has jurisdiction over how D.C. executes its laws, could decide the fate of Bowser’s Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019.

Even though D.C. residents in 2014 voted overwhelmingly in favor of marijuana legalization, they’re allowed to possess only small amounts of the drug and cannot sell it, nor can the District tax sales. That’s because House Republicans inserted into a spending bill a provision that prohibits federal funds from being used “to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or reduce penalties associated with the possession, use or distribution” of marijuana.

Bowser’s bill would allow the sale of recreational weed in the District and establish a minimum purchase age of 21. However, it does not allow for rooftop or sidewalk smoking so as not to encourage the District’s growth as a marijuana destination.

What Congress does next will have vast economic implications. Legal marijuana is a potential multimillion-dollar industry, with several ancillary goods and services that stand to gain from legalization. Bong manufacturers, eye drop distributors and late-night cookie delivery companies all could benefit.

But opponents of the previous effort insist that moving ahead with weed sales would be a violation of federal antideficiency law, which prohibits D.C. from spending money that was not appropriated.

“I continue to believe that legalization of recreational marijuana is poor public policy,” said Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, a critic of marijuana legalization who led efforts to weaken the law last go-around. “Bowser should respect the Constitution, which gives Congress absolute authority over the District of Columbia, and discontinue her efforts to legalize marijuana in violation of the law.”

But D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is vowing to fight off congressional opponents and make sure full legalization goes through. With Democrats in charge of the House this time, she could have reason for optimism.

“We will not accept congressional prohibition on the use of D.C. funds for commercialization while states are free to do so,” Norton said in a statement. “With Democratic control of the House, I am confident I can remove the recreational marijuana commercialization rider from the House’s upcoming fiscal year 2020 D.C. Appropriations bill, which will place D.C. in a strong negotiating position with the Senate.”

Currently seven states impose excise taxes on marijuana sales.

Should the bill go through, watch for an uptick in people who think Animal Collective is actually good or that Seth Rogen is actually funny.

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