City Desk

Congress Set to Lift Controversial D.C. Riders

This just in: D.C.'s spending bill is through a congressional conference committee, and there is some very good news for the District.

A joint appropriations press release [PDF] says that an omnibus spending bill, almost certain to pass "[e]liminates a prohibition on the use of local tax funds for abortion, thereby putting the District in the same position as the 50 states. Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities, and discontinues a ban on the use of funds in the bill for domestic partnership registration and benefits."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says in a release that the abortion provision is a particular victory, noting that it "became an issue as a result of the Senate debate on abortion in the healthcare reform bill."

"The D.C. abortion rider has created severe hardships for low income women in the District," Norton says in a statement. "It has singled out the District and its women for unfair and unequal treatment.”

But perhaps the most interesting development is the death of the marijuana rider.

LL explored over the summer what might happen if the rider disappeared. There's a real possibility that the 1998 ballot initiative approving medical marijuana in the District might simply go into effect:

What exactly would happen is up for debate: The reigning school of thought is that the Barr amendment essentially placed Initiative 59 in a deep freeze—the votes were counted and certified by the elections board, per the federal ruling, but city officials were still barred from expending any resources to move forward with it. So, the thinking goes, the bill should be able to be thawed out, so to speak, sent to Congress for its usual 30-day review, and become law.

Brian Flowers, general counsel to the D.C. Council, says there is “a very real possibility” that once the president signs a rider-free District budget bill, the law can simply be sent to Congress and then become law. No new initiative necessary.

Even in that scenario, the District body politic would have plenty of opportunities to weigh in. Flowers says there’s a possibility that the council would have to appropriate money to put the initiative into effect, and then there’s the simple fact that no District ballot initiative is out of the reach of the council: If lawmakers don’t like it, they can strike it down, much as they did to the term-limit statute passed by 62 percent of voters in 1994.


If Initiative 59 were do go straight into law, the Fenty administration would be required to do a number of things. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would be required to license nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations “for the purpose of cultivating, purchasing, and distributing marijuana” for medical marijuana patients. The health department would have to come up with a plan to get medical marijuana in the hands of patients in Medicaid or government-funded HIV/AIDS programs. And the mayor himself, along with the council, would have to “deliver a copy of this act to the President and the Congress to express the sense of the people of the District of Columbia that the Federal government must develop a system to distribute marijuana to patients who need it for medical purposes.”

LL will update with any developments along these lines.

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  • EdTheRed

    I know you Rider, not gonna miss you when you're gone.

  • Peter Rosenstein

    Congratulations to Eleanor Holmes Norton - she has worked hard for this- and to the Democrats who control the Congress for recognizing that DC should have real home rule. This also bodes well for the next big issue up on the Hill from DC which is marriage-equality.

  • Craig Howell

    Bet we won't hear Bishop Jackson and Archbishop Wuerl talk so much now about "Let The People Vote!"

  • Rick Rosendall

    It is odd to read that the spending bill "discontinues a ban on the use of funds in the bill for domestic partnership registration and benefits." That discontinuation occurred in the FY 2002 D.C. appropriations bill. Had the prohibition crept back in? And does that mean we've been violating the law for the past eight years?

  • DCBob

    @Rick, the ban 1992 ban covered local and federal funds. The change in FY 2002 was only a lifting a ban on local funds. The spending ban on federal money to implement the domestic partnership law remained. However, since no federal dollars would be used in any event for DPs, the issue has been moot. This is a symbolic victory, the real win was in 2002.

  • Concerned Parent

    It’s great to hear that citizens of DC will no longer need to fear jail time for using marijuana on the advice of their doctor.

    Both the American College of Physicians and American Medical Association have expressed support for investigation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Marijuana in various forms, not necessarily smoked, has been used therapeutically for centuries in many parts of the world. Marijuana appears to provide relief from pain, nausea, and other symptoms, with fewer ill effects and a greater margin of safety than the narcotic drugs commonly administered for pain, and safer even than the non-narcotic drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and related compounds that are responsible for a few hundred deaths each year (

    In 2008, the American College of Physicians stated: “The science on medical marijuana should not be obscured or hindered by the debate surrounding the legalization of marijuana for general use.” (

    The American Medical Association position is available at (the Medical Marijuana section begins on page 12 of the 27 page document).

    I hope that anyone who can benefit from the medical use of marijuana is allowed to do so safely, without having to go to a criminal drug dealer and without fear of prison for himself or herself.

  • Rick Rosendall

    Okay. The statement didn't specify that, but that explains it. As you say, we never asked to spend federal funds on the purpose anyway.

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