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Democratic House flip may mean full legalization of marijuana in nation’s capital

Residents of the nation’s capital get no vote in Congress, but the Democratic takeover of the House may come with a consolation prize: recreational marijuana shops.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), fresh off her reelection victory, said Wednesday she plans to introduce legislation early next year to legalize the sale of marijuana.

Voters in 2014 passed a ballot measure legalizing the possession of marijuana in small amounts. But House Republicans have blocked the city from spending money to regulate and tax marijuana.

That means District residents over 21 can legally grow and use marijuana, and possess up to two ounces. But it must be used and grown on private property and cannot be exchanged for money, goods or services. Residents cannot buy marijuana as they can in six states that have legalized the drug, and the District is not able to tax transactions, losing what could be millions in revenue annually.

The District has several dispensaries for registered patients who use medical marijuana.

But with Republicans losing control of the House, local elected officials hope the federal restrictions against recreational marijuana will end and that full legalization can commence.

“We will prepare a tax-and-regulate scheme to present to the council at the beginning of the next year,” said Bowser at a city hall news conference outlining her second-term goals.

“We have an untenable situation in the District,” the mayor continued. “As long as we have the ability to possess marijuana, which is our law, we also need the ability to procure marijuana legally, which we don’t have now.”

She declined to offer further details.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) has already introduced legislation authorizing the city to license pot retailers.

But there’s no guarantee congressional hurdles will disappear. And there’s a complex path ahead before marijuana stores could open.

The restrictions on the District’s spending come as part of annual budget negotiations between the House and the Senate.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) is behind the anti-marijuana restrictions on the D.C. budget. But now that he will be in the minority, he probably won’t have the votes to push it through the House.

A spokesman for Harris did not return a request for comment.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who is set to lead the panel overseeing District affairs, say they will oppose the anti-marijuana rider.

That means the future of the District marijuana laws hinges on a Republican Senate.

“The Senate doesn’t seem to care much,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in the House. “Let’s see how much they much they care now.”

She said it would be tougher to remove the other GOP House restriction on the District, which prevents it from using local funds to provide abortions to low-income women. Norton said pressure from antiabortion groups would make that difficult to reverse. But she hasn’t seen similar pressure on Senate Republicans regarding the city’s marijuana laws, particularly because some represent states that have legalized pot.

The anti-marijuana rider could be removed as early as next month, when a budget deadline is looming, but those prospects are dim, as Republicans are still in control of the House until January.

More likely, the issue would come up again in negotiations over the budget that takes effect on Oct. 1, 2019. If the Senate were to include D.C. marijuana restrictions in its spending bill, the issue would be part of negotiations between legislative leaders when they resolve differences.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he favors regulating the sale of marijuana — calling existing laws an “impossible paradox” — but worries the mayor may have jumped the gun. Some believe the congressional rider prohibits lawmakers from even considering legalization measures.

“If mayor sent down the bill, the first thing I would have to do is talk to my lawyers about whether and how we can proceed,” said Mendelson. “Am I supportive of moving forward with regulating? Yes, I am. It’s a question of how soon.”

Grosso says the city should go ahead and start debating full marijuana legalization despite the restrictions on the books. He and other advocates believe marijuana shops could open as early as 2020.

“I believe we should act as if Congress isn’t there and suffer the consequences, whatever they might be,” Grosso said. He offered a potential upside: “If they did come after us, it would be good PR for statehood for the District of Columbia.”

As timing has it, Norton also plans to push for a floor vote on a bill granting statehood to the District.

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