Congress Shuts Down Legal Weed Sales in Washington, D.C., Yet Again
The Democrats' failure to tackle this relatively simple cannabis reform issue casts serious doubt on their ability to pass a comprehensive federal legalization bill.
Published on March 17, 2022

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Congress will continue to block Washington DC from legalizing adult-use cannabis sales, upholding a ban that has been in place for nearly a decade.

Late last week, Congress signed off on a mammoth $1.5 trillion budget bill to fund the federal government through the 2022 fiscal year. And like every annual funding bill, this year's model includes a number of amendments that have nothing to do with the federal budget. One of these amendments, the Harris Rider, was created for the sole purpose of blocking the nation's capital from fully legalizing weed.

This amendment specifically prevents Washington DC from using its own tax dollars to create regulations for a legal cannabis retail market. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) drafted this amendment shortly after DC voted to legalize personal cannabis possession, use, and home-grows back in 2014. This half-measure still prohibits retail pot sales, so entrepreneurs began launching “gray market” businesses exchanging “free” weed for “donations” or cheap merch.

“Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the gray market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model,” a coalition of cannabis advocacy groups wrote to Congress last month, The Hill reports. “Such a model would free up law enforcement resources to focus on threats to public safety.”

City lawmakers have attempted to rectify the problem by creating a licensed and regulated retail sales market, but Harris' rider has blocked them from doing so. DC officials hoped that Congress would finally do away with this restriction once Democrats took control of the Senate and the White House last year, but the Biden administration actually fought to keep the ban in full effect.

This year, the District finally saw a glimmer of hope when the House stripped the amendment from its version of the bill. But in reconciliation meetings between the two chambers of Congress, Republicans threatened to shut the entire budget bill down unless Democrats agreed to add the Harris rider back in. Despite their majority, the Democrats caved and let the ban stand.

“We don't like the fact it's there,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, to The Hill. “But it was a choice between providing DC and the American people with funding for their big priorities and still having them and not having them. Republicans were the ones who insisted. They were ready to shut down the government.”

With the rider still in place, DC will be stuck with its gray market, and cops will continue to waste their time busting pot dealers instead of solving serious crimes. Congress is also debating three bills that could resolve the issue by legalizing weed on a federal level, but if Democrats weren't even able to strike down this single amendment, their chances of enacting comprehensive cannabis reform seem dim.

“I’m surprised and deeply disappointed by both the House and Senate’s inability to negotiate on behalf of Washingtonians, especially on one of the most bipartisan issues in the country,” said Queen Adesuyi, senior national policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, to The Hill. “The hope is that this is not indicative of congressional leaders’ commitment to marijuana justice, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this was a serious missed opportunity to stand behind marijuana justice, as well as democracy.”

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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