Congressional negotiators to a $1.1 trillion spending bill on Tuesday undercut the U.S. capital city’s referendum to legalize marijuana, prohibiting Washington, D.C., from using federal and local funds to implement the initiative.
The full House of Representatives and Senate still must pass the legislation that funds federal agencies that otherwise would run out of money at midnight on Thursday.
District of Columbia voters last month overwhelmingly approved Initiative 71, which legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Some Republican lawmakers, led by Representative Andy Harris of Maryland, had balked at legalization in Washington. Harris, a doctor, told a Heritage Foundation drug policy seminar on Tuesday, “Relaxing laws clearly leads to more teenaged drug use.”
Congress has the power to restrict city spending, and the rider bars any spending by the District of Columbia to legalize marijuana under the referendum.
The amendment does not affect a District of Columbia law with one of the lightest U.S. penalties for pot possession. A decriminalization measure that went into effect in July imposes a $25 civil fine for possession of up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana. Pot is illegal under federal law.
Backers say Initiative 71 advanced civil rights. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that African-Americans made up 90 percent of District marijuana arrests even though non-blacks used pot at similar rates.
Supporters had been optimistic that Congress would back legalized marijuana since the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had passed several laws allowing states to regulate marijuana.
The spending bill continues a rider to restrict abortion spending in the heavily Democratic city. A rider had been used for 11 years to keep Washington from implementing a voter-backed measure allowing medical marijuana.
The White House warned Congress in July to leave the District of Columbia alone on legalization. But with prompt passage of the funding bill essential to avoiding a government shutdown, the legislation is not expected to be held up over the marijuana measure.
Residents of Oregon and Alaska voted to legalize marijuana last month. Washington state and Colorado voted in 2012 to allow recreational pot use. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana.
Initiative 71 lets people over 21 possess up to 2 ounces (56 grams) of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home. Congress would effectively block plans by the District Council to tax and regulate marijuana sales.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Tom Ramstack; Editing by Ken Wills)