A powerful congressional subcommittee approved legislation this week that would continue preventing the city of Washington, D.C. from moving to broaden its current marijuana legalization law. The bill would also add a new restriction on the use of funds to support opening safe consumption facilities where people could consume illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.
The provisions, contained in Fiscal Year 2019 funding legislation approved on Thursday by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government continue a long tradition of Republican-controlled Congresses interfering in the ability of officials in the nation’s capital to set local cannabis and drug policies.
The marijuana provision, which continues current law, reads:
SEC. 809. (a) None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative.
(b) No funds available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.
D.C. voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize low-level marijuana possession and limited homegrow of cannabis plants in 2014. But despite City Council support for building on that measure with a system of legal, taxed and regulated marijuana production and retail sales, the District hasn’t been able to move forward with those plans because of the ongoing congressional prohibition.
Separately, the House subcommittee’s bill, which is expected to go before the full Appropriations Committee next month, would ban the use of federal funds to support safe consumption facilities for illegal drug users.
SEC. 807. None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to distribute any needle or syringe for the purpose of preventing the spread of blood borne pathogens in any location that has been determined by the local public health or local law enforcement authorities to be inappropriate for such distribution, or used for the operation of a supervised drug consumption facility that permits the consumption of any substance listed in Schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) onsite.
The ban on the use of funds for certain needle or syringe exchange programs in the provision has been law for years, but the clause about supervised drug consumption sites is new.
While no such aboveground site yet exists in the U.S., the addition of the new funding prohibition language comes as public health advocates and officials in a number of states across the country are endorsing the idea.
As the New York Times editorial board recently wrote, “Seattle and San Francisco are both on track to open sites, and Philadelphia recently approved the idea as well. Boston, Ithaca and New York City are considering their own facilities.”
Whereas the ban on further marijuana legalization in D.C. applies to both the use of federal funds and those raised locally by the District, the safe consumption site ban only covers federal funds. So D.C. would presumably still be able to use local tax dollars to pay for the facilities.
But the funding issue aside, the mere legality of the proposed sites, which are sometimes called safe injection facilities (SIFs), is itself in question.
Vermont’s U.S. attorney, for example, said in a statement last year that such sites would send the “wrong message to children in Vermont: the government will help you use heroin.” He further wrote:
“Of equal importance, the proposed SIFs would violate several federal criminal laws, including those prohibiting use of narcotics and maintaining a premises for the purpose of narcotics use. It is a crime, not only to use illicit narcotics, but to manage and maintain sites on which such drugs are used and distributed. Thus, exposure to criminal charges would arise for users and SIF workers and overseers. The properties that host SIFs would also be subject to federal forfeiture.”
Advocates, on the other hand, say the facilities save lives by making sure drug consumers can receive medical attention from on-site personnel in the event of overdoses.
A study of a safe injection site operating in Vancouver, Canada found that overdose deaths dropped much more sharply in the neighborhood surrounding the facility as compared to the rest of the city.
A press release from the office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) mentioned the marijuana provision in the new funding bill but was silent on the drug consumption site language.
Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.