On Friday, April 3, Democratic Congresswoman for Washington, D.C. Eleanor Holmes Norton demanded Congress remove the rider that prevents D.C. from using local funds to establish a commercial recreational cannabis industry in the district.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” Norton said in a statement.
Norton wants the removal of the rider to be included in the next bill responding to COVID-19. In 2014, D.C. residents voted to pass Initiative 71 which made cannabis legal for adult recreational use. Not long after it passed however, Maryland Representative Andy Harris proposed a last-minute amendment that declared, “None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any Schedule I substance.” Under federal law, cannabis is a Schedule I substance (“drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”) along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, among others. The result was that the sale of cannabis remained against the law, in effect, leading to D.C.’s current gray market.
Since then, the amendment has been known derisively as the “Harris Rider” and has been viewed by cannabis advocates as one of the most problematic prohibitionist policies in effect.
In 2019, Norton helped get the “Harris Rider” removed from the House’s appropriations bill for 2020 but the Senate has kept the rider. Norton has opposed the rider since its introduction (and has artfully argued that the rider does not prohibit the legalization of small amounts). As a member of the bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus, she has been a powerful legislator pushing for legalization. She has called cannabis reform “a civil rights issue,” and has pushed for more specific, thoughtful legislation as well. As The Outlaw Report has previously written, Norton introduced the Marijuana in Federally Assisted Housing Parity Act of 2019 in hopes of making cannabis use legal in public housing and Section 8 housing (currently those living in federally-assisted housing can be evicted for cannabis use).
Part of Norton’s reasoning for demanding this from Congress for the next coronavirus relief bill relates to D.C.’s funding in coronavirus legislation being significantly reduced due to D.C. being categorized as a territory: “Senate Republicans and the White House shorted D.C. $750 million in the latest coronavirus relief bill by treating D.C. as a territory instead of a state, as is usually the case for federal funding, leaving the District without the support states received to provide government services during this unprecedented emergency,” Norton said.
Norton adds that while she also intends to address the reduced funding issue in the upcoming bill, removing the rider would provide D.C. with additional funds generated by a commercial cannabis industry, which would be helpful all around and especially if federal funding is significantly reduced.
“It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so,” Norton said. “Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Photo of Eleanor Holmes Norton at Rally for D.C. Lives before the March For Our Lives by Lorie Shaull / Courtesy Creative Commons