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VIA THE WASHINGTON POST:

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Sunday that clears the way for the District government to allow medical marijuana use and to spend local tax dollars to help low-income women pay for abortions.

More than a decade ago, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that would allow for the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana if recommended by a physician for serious illnesses.

Initiative 59 passed with 69 percent of the vote in 1998, but before it could take effect, Congress passed legislation banning the practice in the District.

The latest bill, which passed the House on Thursday, also continues to allow needle-exchange programs in a bid to limit the spread of HIV and AIDS, a strategy that Congress had blocked in the District until 2007. It also provides $752 million in federal funds for the District as part of a larger spending package.

“This is the biggest win for home rule in decades,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

The District would join Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington in allowing medical marijuana.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee, supports medical marijuana but said city leaders will proceed with caution.

“I wouldn’t expect it to be implemented anytime soon, because we are going to need to do thoughtful planning,” he said, noting that guidelines must be written about who can grow, distribute and receive marijuana.

First, though, the District might need to submit the text of the voter initiative for a 30-day legislative review. During that window, Congress could take the unlikely step of blocking the initiative. If no action is taken, the District government can issue regulations.

Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he thinks medical marijuana could be available in the District by the end of 2010. “They don’t have to start over,” Houston said.

A federal law known as the Hyde Amendment has barred the District and states from using federal money to fund abortions, but states are free to use local tax dollars to cover the cost of the procedure for women who cannot otherwise afford it. Private donations have helped some D.C. women, but supporters of abortion rights say many have been turned away from clinics and hospitals because the District government has had no financing for abortions.

The bill also allows the District to continue using local tax dollars to fund needle-exchange programs that provide clean syringes to addicts, part of an effort to stem the spread of AIDS. In 2007, Congress ended a decade-long prohibition against city funding, allowing the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration to provide four nonprofit agencies with $700,000 to distribute needles in areas where drug trafficking is common.

For years, the District has fought what residents see as intrusions into city business by representatives from elsewhere. The city’s largely Democratic leadership has complained that times were particularly tough when Republicans were in charge.

“It’s hard to rank these riders except by lives lost,” Norton said. “In lives lost, needle exchange [restrictions] would rank as the most lethal.”

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said the Senate vote demonstrates how much the working relationship between the city and Congress has improved since Democrats took over.

“The District has come a long way,” he said. “The support from Congress to the District is at an all-time high. We’re glad about the substantive issues.”

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