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Marijuana advocates in Washington, D.C., say they’ve collected almost enough signatures to put legalization on the citywide ballot in November. But news out of Congress has sent them into overdrive.

Activists are pushing for Initiative 71, a measure that would legalize marijuana in the District. They’ve gathered 60,000 signatures, and they say they’re nearly ready to submit their petition for the ballot.

U.S. CapitolThe idea is very popular in the nation’s capital. Polls routinely show more than 60 percent of District residents want to legalize weed.

But House Republicans have raised the specter of federal intervention, which they could use to block any Washington law they don’t like. They’re currently pushing to overturn the city’s recently enacted decriminalization policies.

“It’s violating our rights as District residents, and I’m just afraid it’s going to happen all over again,” said Adam Eidinger of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign. “If we can just get this on the ballot . . . then we’ll have a vote. That’s my immediate concern.”

D.C. residents have seen all this go wrong before. In 1998, organizers managed to get a medical marijuana question on the ballot, but Congress stepped in and prevented the city from even counting the votes.

Washington is a home rule city, meaning it has the power to make independent decisions about public policy. But that power is limited. Congress can prevent any District ordinance from taking effect. That rarely happens, but the GOP is threatening to do it now.

In late June, the House voted to bar the city from enacting a new law decriminalizing weed possession. The law removes criminal penalties for possession and replaces them with a small civil fine.

The House vote is part of a mandatory congressional review of D.C. legislation. Any action blocking District policy must pass both houses of Congress and receive the president’s signature within 60 days of the start of the review.

It’s unlikely at worst that lawmakers will allow intervention to happen, since the Senate is dominated by Democrats who are friendly to the District and its overwhelmingly Democratic population. President Obama hasn’t said how he would vote on the effort to stop decriminalization, but he has adopted a relatively hands-off approach to local marijuana reform.

Marijuana-Legalization.jpgStill, activists behind the legalization campaign see congressional intervention as a looming threat. The bill passed by Republican lawmakers would bar District officials from using any money to reform cannabis laws.

It the bill passes, officials may not be able to count votes in November. If not, however, legalization could soon become law.

And that in and of itself could hasten the end of national prohibition. It’s harder to ignore the chorus of voices calling for reform when those voices are coming from your own backyard.

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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