Can D.C. Still Legalize Marijuana? Depends What “Enact” Means

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The House delivered an expected blow to D.C.’s plans to legalize marijuana last night when it voted in favor of a spending bill that contains a provision intended to block Initiative 71—the D.C. ballot measure to legalize the drug that 70 percent of voters supported on Election Day.

President Barack Obama has already said that he would sign the bill into law, despite disagreeing on principle with Congress meddling with local D.C. affairs (and also strong objections from many Democrats to provisions that would let federally guaranteed banks conduct derivatives trades again and raise caps on contributions to political parties).

But at least some officials say there’s still hope for D.C.’s marijuana law, particularly in the favorable reading of the spending bill that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is championing. And as a result, by Thursday, they had quietly stopped fighting the legislation as aggressively as they were when it was first released.

The bill prohibits D.C. from using funds to “enact any law, rule or regulation” to legalize or reduce the penalties associated with possession of marijuana. Norton argues that Initiative 71 was enacted when voters approved it in November. Now, the District just needs to carry it out and implement it. And the provision does not prevent the District from “carrying out” the law. Typically provisions like this, which attempt to gut a law through the appropriations process, include language preventing use of funds to “enact or carry out,” not just enact, whatever they’re trying to block. Rep. Andy Harris‘ legislation to block D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization, for instance, contained the words “carry out.”

“Based on a plain reading of the bill and principles of statutory interpretation, the District may be able to carry out its marijuana legalization initiative,” Norton wrote in a press release.

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