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Democrats Fail to Get D.C.’s Cannabis Legalization Approved by Congress

Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen claims Republicans were “ready to shut down the government” over the issue.

Marijuana on display at a dispensary in Portland, Oregon.

The legal sale of cannabis in the nation’s capital will continue to remain under a federal ban, due to a rider attached to the $1.5 trillion spending package that Congress passed this week.

The Harris Rider, named after Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), has been part of federal budgets since 2015, the year after Washington, D.C. residents voted to allow the sale of recreational marijuana in their city. Democrats sought to remove the rider during negotiations on the budget, but were ultimately unable to do so, in spite of their and President Joe Biden’s 2020 pledges to decriminalize cannabis and reschedule the drug from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) defended his party’s actions.

“We don’t like the fact it’s there. But it was a choice between providing D.C. and the American people with funding for their big priorities and still having them and not having them,” Van Hollen said, adding that Republicans were apparently “ready to shut down the government” over the issue and other riders that Democrats wanted out of the bill.

The legislation, which provides funding for the federal government as well as aid to Ukraine in light of the Russian invasion, passed in the Senate by a vote of 68 to 31 on Thursday night, after previously passing in the House earlier in the week. Biden is expected to sign the bill on Friday.

While Democrats failed to lift the ban on the sale of recreational cannabis in Washington, D.C. this week, they have introduced legislation in the past year that would decriminalize marijuana across the U.S. However, those efforts have stalled, in large part due to obstruction from the GOP and conservative Democrats in the Senate.

D.C. residents have long favored decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis within the federal district. Smoking cannabis is also legal in the district, so long as it’s not done in public areas or on federal property. But the Harris Rider has kept the legal sale of cannabis in Washington, D.C. from becoming a reality.

Although Washington, D.C. has some autonomy on this and other issues, Congress still has the ability to overturn any legislation that passes within the city, and ultimately has the final say in how the area is managed.

Legalization isn’t just favored in Washington, D.C. Indeed, polling on the national level shows that a majority of Americans — nearly three-in-five — back the legalization of cannabis for recreational use.

In a YouGov survey conducted in November of 2021, 57 percent of respondents said that they wanted the drug to be legalized. Only 27 percent said that they wanted it to remain illegal on the federal level.

Currently, cannabis is legal for recreational use in 18 states and in Washington, D.C. It is legal in an additional 17 states for medicinal use.

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