Pot Legalization Advocates Tap Lobbyist on D.C.’s Marijuana Ban

  • Arent Fox hired to lobby Congress on cannabis in the district
  • Spending rider in place since 2014 has blocked legalization

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The Drug Policy Alliance is ramping up a lobbying effort to remove the federal prohibition on the District of Columbia legalizing and regulating cannabis by bringing in the high-powered law and lobbying firm Arent Fox.

It’s the first outside firm hired by the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that works on drug decriminalization measures around the country. The organization has been involved with lobbying the federal government for two decades, according to disclosures filed with Congress.

“The District of Columbia is the nation’s capital. What happens here sends waves across the country,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a phone interview. Supporting drug policy change in D.C. is especially significant, she said, because “what happens in D.C. speaks to the nation.”

The team at Arent Fox includes two former staffers to the District’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). One of the former aides, David Grosso, also served eight years on the D.C. Council and had been involved with cannabis issues during his tenure, which ended at the beginning of the year.

“The public has moved so far along on cannabis throughout the country with all the work that’s been done in different jurisdictions and eventually the federal government’s going to have to be brought along,” Grosso said in a phone interview.

Spending Bill Rider

At issue is language that’s been retained from year to year in the Financial Services-General Government appropriations bill that includes federal funding for D.C. and signs off on its budget.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) initially attached the provision in 2014 following passage of a local law that reduced penalties for possession. Later that year, D.C. voters by a wide margin approved an initiative that allows those 21 years and older to grow, possess, and gift marijuana.

The city has been barred from using federal or local funds to craft regulations or laws that would allow for the legalization, sale, or taxation of the drug or any other Schedule I substance.

President Joe Biden disappointed marijuana legalization proponents when he included the prohibition in his fiscal 2022 budget proposal to Congress.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Members of DC Marijuana Justice hold a 51 blow-up joint on the National Mall ahead of President Joe Biden’s April 28 address to Congress to call for action on legalization and expungement of criminal records. Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request proposed retaining marijuana legalization prohibitions for D.C. that have been in previous spending bills.

Lobbyists have been working with members of the House and Senate Appropriations panels, though Adesuyi said there’s been a larger focus on the Senate now that Democrats hold the majority in the chamber.

The “Harris rider” wasn’t in the two House spending bills approved by appropriators in the last Congress. It remained in the Senate versions drafted by Republicans, and was part of the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending measure (Public Law 116-260).

“I’ve gotten it removed twice in the last two appropriation bills and I’m not going to stop,” Norton said in a phone interview, but noted that there could be a continuation of the status quo even with Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate.

She expressed “deep dissatisfaction” that Biden included the prohibition in his budget request despite his support for D.C. statehood.

Advocates say they have a better chance this year to get the language removed with Democrats controlling the Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), has been working on federal marijuana legislation with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which could lead to the rider ultimately being lifted.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who leads the Financial Services-General Government Subcommittee, told the Washington Post he’d oppose measures “that dictate to the District of Columbia what its laws should be or how it spends its money.”

‘Historic Opportunity’

“It’s really a historic opportunity, this year in particular, to try to lift the rider because of the changed dynamics,” said Adesuyi. “The conversation in Congress has really shifted away from, ‘Should we legalize?’ to ’How should we do it?’, at least in the Democratic caucus.”

Schumer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, including 47% of Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research poll. Seventeen states have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use, and 37 states have legalized medicinal cannabis.

In addition to lobbying, the Drug Policy Alliance will launch a digital campaign to educate people about the issue and the fact that Congress has the authority to overturn local laws in D.C.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan R. Wilson in Washington at mwilson@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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