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Congress Keeps D.C. Cannabis Sales Ban In Place But Continues Protections For Medical States

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

Washington, D.C. would continue to be blocked from legalizing recreational marijuana sales under a bicameral omnibus spending bill that was introduced by congressional leaders early on Wednesday morning. But a separate provision protecting state and territory medical cannabis programs from federal interference remains intact in the legislation, which is expected to get get voters in both chambers this week.

The ongoing cannabis commerce blockade in D.C. is a disappointment for advocates who had hoped that congressional leaders in the Democratic-controlled Congress would remove the rider like the House did in its version last year and as the Senate also did in a draft version that was circulated by the Appropriations Committee.

Activists also wanted to see an expansion of the current state medical marijuana protection language to cover all state cannabis programs from Justice Department intervention, but that didn’t pan out either.

President Joe Biden’s administration didn’t help when it released its budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year, which maintained the so-called Harris rider blocking D.C. from using its local tax dollars from allowing cannabis commerce despite voter approval of an initiative to legalize possession and home cultivation eight years ago. The measure, named after its anti-legalization sponsor Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), has been annually renewed since 2014.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said she is “deeply disappointed” the legislation maintains the marijuana rider as well as a separate one blocking the city from using local funds to pay for abortions. She placed the blame at the feet of “Republicans, whose votes are necessary to pass the bill.”

More than 50 leading marijuana advocacy and civil rights organizations sent a letter to congressional leaders and appropriators last week, asking that they finally allow recreational cannabis sales to begin in the District.

A House vote on the omnibus appropriations legislation is expected to happen as early as Wednesday, just days before a government spending deadline that had been pushed back multiple times through continuing resolutions. The bill would then head to the Senate and need to be signed into law by Biden ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline to avoid a government shutdown.

Once that happens, D.C. officials will be blocked from passing legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis sales until at least the end of September, when Fiscal Year 2022 ends. It would be up to Congress to potentially remove the rider from subsequent appropriations legislation.

While there appeared to be shared interest among House and Senate Democrats in ending the D.C. ban as part of the fiscal year 2022 appropriations session, achieving that goal proved logistically complicated.

All four committee leaders handling appropriations reportedly agreed to refrain from adding new or removing existing policy riders without bipartisan, bicameral buy-in—effectively dooming the prospects of eliminating the D.C. language this round due to opposition from top Republicans.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said last April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.

District Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in a statement on Wednesday that the ongoing rider poses public safety problems in the nation’s capital, adding that he is “incensed to see that Congress continues to thwart the overwhelming majority of District voters who support recreational cannabis legalization and regulation.”

Meanwhile, the medical marijuana protection rider that was first enacted in 2014 was again included in the omnibus legislation. But despite pleas from advocates and lawmakers to expand the policy to all state and territory cannabis programs—and the House’s approval of amendments to do so—that broader language was not adopted in the newly negotiated bill.

The appropriations legislation and attached reports passed by the House last year also directed federal government agencies to reconsider policies that fire employees for using cannabis in compliance with state law, protect banks from certain punishments for working with marijuana businesses, criticized restrictive hemp regulations, encouraged CBD to be allowed in foods and urged expanded research on cannabis and other substances including psychedelics.

Most of those provisions have not been included in the new omnibus legislation, though there are a few notable cannabis-related passages.

“The agreement expects further progress on regulatory pathways for cannabis-derived products that contain cannabidiol,” the report attached to the section of the legislation that funds the Food and Drug Administration says. “Additionally, the agreement maintains at least the fiscal year 2021 funding level for cannabidiol-related oversight and enforcement.”

The report covering support for the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that the legislation “provides funding increases for… Hemp Genomics.”

The bill also continues longstanding riders protecting state hemp programs from federal interference and reiterates a prior directive for the Drug Enforcement Administration to develop hemp testing technology so that police have access to “laboratory testing and on-the-spot field testing technologies and devices to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse is directed to “conduct interdisciplinary research on the relationship between the vaping of tobacco and marijuana, with an emphasis on risk perceptions, decision-making, and neuroscience.”

Report language encouraging the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to conduct research “on the use of natural products such as kratom to treat pain” is also included.

Finally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is directed to continue efforts to prevent and detect drug-impaired driving, and is specifically encouraged to “use the results of laboratory tests (related to marijuana impairment standards) to move forward to field testing and to work towards the development of a standardized field sobriety test to detect levels of marijuana impairment.”

“NHTSA’s work should focus on all commonly available cannabis products,” the report language says. “NHTSA should also consider issuing toxicology testing guidance to state officials in accordance with recommendations issued by the National Safety Council…and consult with relevant accredited universities.”

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