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Blazing a trail: DC rep wants weed in Capitol garden

In a letter to the U.S. Botanic Garden’s executive director, D.C.’s sole congresswoman emphasized marijuana’s impact on American society and the economy.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Botanic Garden counts coffee and tobacco plants among its enormous botanical collection — and if Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton has anything to say about it, the country’s oldest public garden could soon display marijuana, too.

Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, has long been a proponent of national marijuana legalization and has decried congressional oversight that blocks D.C. from taxing and regulating cannabis sales.

Now, the Democrat has turned her advocacy towards the Botanic Garden on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, reasoning with its Executive Director Susan Pell in a letter Wednesday that the push towards legalization makes weed deserving of a garden plot.

“As individual states and the country as a whole are moving toward the legalization of marijuana, having a display with male and female marijuana plants would be a historic opportunity to highlight the impact of marijuana on American society and, especially, the American economy,” the lawmaker wrote.

Norton pointed out that, in 2021, states where the sale of recreational marijuana is legal — which includes 21 states and D.C. — collected around 20% more taxes on retail cannabis sales than they did on alcohol sales. Legal marijuana sales nationwide are expected to exceed more than $50 billion by the end of the decade, she added.

The D.C. delegate gave Pell until May 24 to decide whether the Botanic Garden would display marijuana. A spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency that oversees the Capitol grounds and the Botanic Garden, did not immediately return a request for comment on whether it would follow through with Norton’s request.

Morgan Fox, political director at the D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, isn’t confident that Norton’s letter means that visitors will see weed growing in the Botanic Garden’s iconic greenhouse any time soon — but for him, it’s more a matter of principle.

“I think it’s important to normalize the idea that cannabis is a viable cash crop in this country,” Fox said. “I think the impetus [of Norton’s request] is really valuable … it is indicative that we are moving away from a total demonization of the plant and the people that consume it for various purposes.”

Until cannabis has been fully legalized and regulated by the federal government, Fox reasoned that it was unlikely the Botanic Garden would approve a marijuana display, but with regulated markets growing nationwide, he said it would be an important step to educate the public about the plant’s value in the economy.

“It’s entirely appropriate to showcase a growing agricultural industry in our nation’s capital,” Fox said.

The Botanic Garden was established by Congress in 1820 and has been under the Architect of the Capitol’s jurisdiction since 1934.

Norton, meanwhile, has previously lobbied the Botanic Garden to display weed-adjacent plants. The lawmaker in 2021 joined California Representative Barbara Lee and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer in requesting that the garden add hemp to its collection, arguing that since its production was legalized in 2018 the plant has become an important U.S. agricultural commodity.

In her Wednesday letter, Norton noted that the garden has recently started displaying hemp for the first time.

The D.C. lawmaker, who has been the city’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives since 1991, has repeatedly sponsored legislation aimed at relaxing certain aspects of the federal prohibition on marijuana use.

Norton in 2021 introduced a measure that, if made law, would legalize cannabis for use in federally funded housing located in states where weed is already legal. She had previously asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make such a change unilaterally.

The lawmaker has also called on President Joe Biden to walk back his position supporting language in D.C.’s federal budget barring it from collecting taxes on commercial marijuana sales, a move that effectively prevents legal dispensaries from opening in D.C. Current municipal law only allows cannabis to be “gifted” alongside the legal purchase of other goods.

As D.C.’s congressional leadership pushes for greater home rule to let its residents spark up, some lawmakers and even the White House are clamping down harder on the District’s ability to self-regulate.

The Senate in March passed a Republican-led resolution striking down a D.C. law that would have relaxed criminal penalties for certain low-level offenses and decreased minimum sentences for more violent crimes. Norton has blasted congressional meddling in municipal affairs as “profoundly undemocratic and paternalistic” and has said such action lends support to D.C.’s push for statehood.

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