Congressional Democrats decided this week to maintain a prohibition on cannabis sales in Washington, D.C. despite previous suggestions that they were prepared to lift the ban and begin allowing legal sales.
A drafted spending bill that was unveiled on Wednesday by House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, still included the so-called “Harris Rider,” which has precluded the District of Columbia from commercializing weed, despite the fact that D.C. voters legalized recreational pot use back in 2014. Tied up in this issue is the D.C. bid for statehood.
Named for Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, the rider has been a fixture of every appropriations bill since the passage of that legalization initiative. (The U.S. Congress oversees all laws in the District of Columbia.)
So while D.C. adults aged 21 and older have been able to legally possess cannabis for the last eight years, the dream of a regulated market in the nation’s capital has not been fully realized for cannabis users.
Politico explained that “D.C. residents are allowed to consume, grow and ‘gift’ cannabis products.” (“Gifting,” wherein a business sells other items and then “gifts,” the customer cannabis has been a popular work-around for pot sellers in jurisdictions where sales are still illegal.)
The development will be seen as a major disappointment for cannabis advocates, who have long targeted the elimination of the Harris Rider as a policy objective.
As Politico noted, the inclusion of the rider “came as a surprise to some advocates because it was not included in funding packages put forth by the House and Senate,” although “President Joe Biden’s proposed budget did include the controversial provision.”
A year ago, with Democrats officially taking back control of Congress and Biden sworn in as president, the outlook for cannabis reform looked bright. However, that hasn’t necessarily proven to be the case today.
Senate Democrats released a version of their appropriations bill in October, which notably did not include the Harris Rider.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser applauded the omission.
“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” Bowser’s office said in a statement at the time.
“As we continue on the path to D.C. statehood, I want to thank Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, our good friend and Subcommittee Chair, Senator Chris Van Hollen, and, of course, our champion on the Hill, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for recognizing and advancing the will of D.C. voters. We urge Congress to pass a final spending bill that similarly removes all anti-Home Rule riders, allowing D.C. to spend our local funds as we see fit.”
Last week, more than 50 civil rights and cannabis advocacy groups urged Congress to remove the Harris Rider.
In a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, among others, groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union noted that, because of its lack of statehood, D.C. “remains the only jurisdiction in the country that cannot regulate marijuana sales or fruitfully tap into the public health and safety benefits of legalization.”
“In one hand, Congress continues to make strides in advancing federal marijuana reform grounded in racial justice, while simultaneously being responsible for prohibiting the very jurisdiction that led the country in legalizing marijuana through this lens from being able to regulate it. This conflict and contradiction must end now,” Queen Adesuyi, Senior National Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.