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D.C.'s Marijuana Legalization Is Part Of Debate Over Spending Bill

Volunteers with the DC Cannabis Campaign (left and center) talk to a voter about the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana on election day. The measure was approved, but its fate remains uncertain.

Negotiations over the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress will consider this week included how to handle Washington, D.C.'s bid to legalize marijuana. Some 65 percent of the federal district's voters approved the move via ballot initiative last month.

Even before November's vote, many saw the measure's future as uncertain. Afterwards, several Republicans in Congress said they would move to block it. This week, the referendum's exact status has been a topic of conflicting reports about the shifting debate over the huge spending bill that will likely come up for a vote Thursday.

"This spending bill would prohibit federal and local funds from being used to implement that referendum," NPR's Ailsa Chang reports. "But it doesn't affect current law decriminalizing medical use of marijuana in D.C."

Restrictions on D.C.'s use of funds to regulate and tax marijuana would likely endanger the district's goal of creating a market that a city finance official said would be worth $130 million a year, as member station WAMU reported in October.

The initiative allows D.C. residents to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for their personal use, and to grow up to six marijuana plants.

We'll remind you that despite some elements of home rule in the nation's capital, Congress can review – and overturn — the city's laws. That means a ballot measure in Washington that legalizes pot must face closer scrutiny than those in Oregon and Alaska, where voters also approved legalizing marijuana last month.

From the National Journal:

"House Republicans, particularly Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers and junior appropriator Andy Harris of Maryland, had been vehemently pushing for language in the bill that would block both decriminalization and legalization."

While legalization advocates have criticized Harris and Rogers, they've also complained that Democrats aren't doing enough to defend the D.C. measure.

Calling the push to block the referendum from taking effect "outrageous," Michael Collins of advocacy group the Drug Policy Alliance said, "While we are encouraged by reports that D.C.'s legalization law may survive, Democratic leadership can do much more. We are deeply troubled by reports that the final language will prevent the District from taxing and regulating marijuana."

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