WASHINGTON — District of Columbia residents will vote in November on whether to legalize marijuana, setting up another possible fight with Congress over drug laws in the nation’s capital.
The three-member D.C. Board of Elections voted unanimously Wednesday to add an initiative on marijuana legalization to the ballot in November. Activists gathered more than the necessary 22,600 signatures to put the issue before voters.
Earlier this year, Mayor Vincent Gray signed a decriminalization law that makes possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. The law took effect last month, and D.C. police have started writing tickets for possession. Smoking in public and possession on federal property remain illegal.
But some members of Congress are seeking to block the decriminalization law and the legalization effort. The Republican-led House approved a spending bill last month with an amendment attached that would bar the District from spending money to liberalize pot laws. The amendment was added by GOP Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland.
One of the leaders of the petition drive, Adam Eidinger, said he doubted the Harris amendment would become law, calling it one of several “poison pill” measures intended to prevent Congress from approving a major spending bill.
“I’m not even worried about Congress anymore,” Eidinger said. “The Harris amendment is a joke.”
Recent history has shown that the federal government can effectively block an initiative approved by District voters. Last year, voters approved an amendment to the city charter that would give the District the power to spend local tax dollars without authorization by Congress. But the mayor declined to enforce it after the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said it had “no legal effect.”
Congress also used amendments to block the District from launching its medical marijuana program for 10 years after voters approved it.
If approved, the new initiative would allow people 21 or older to possess up to 2 ounces of pot and to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. It does not address the sale of the drug, leaving it to the mayor and the D.C. Council to decide whether the city should tax and regulate marijuana like Colorado and Washington state.
The council voted overwhelmingly in favor of decriminalization but has been cool to the prospect of legalization. But on Wednesday, Councilmember Muriel Bowser, the District’s Democratic mayoral nominee, said in a statement that she will vote in favor of the ballot initiative. Councilmember David Catania, an independent mayoral candidate, also plans to vote for it. Another independent candidate, Carol Schwartz, opposes legalization.