D.C. Legalizes Marijuana Despite Threats From Congress

Possessing small amounts of marijuana is now legal in the nation's capital, even after some members of Congress threatened prison time for D.C. Council members. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser and other officials issued a response to Capitol Hill during a briefing Wednesday afternoon, saying the city would move forward with the law.

Bowser said the city and Republicans in Congress disagree about whether the city is allowed to legalize pot but those legal differences can be resolved without either side bullying or threatening the other.

“We believe that we are acting lawfully,” Bowser said.

Bowser said the law was enacted Dec. 5 when the vote for Issue 71 was certified by the Board of Elections. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said they had no choice but to send it to Congress for a 30-day review under the Home Rule Act.

“This is the process that we have to follow when legislation has been enacted,” Mendelson said.

But Congress is investigating D.C.'s move, and one representative is demanding documents showing how money has been spent to change the city's pot laws.

In the letter, Chaffetz warned Bowser that she would be in "knowing and willful" violation of the law if the District moves forward with the legalization of marijuana Thursday.

Chaffetz's letter also asks Bowser to provide a list of D.C. employees who participated in or declined to participate in any action related to the enactment of Initiative 71, the amount of money spent to change the District's pot laws, and any documents related to the enactment of Initiative 71.

The following month, Congress passed a federal spending bill that also sought to halt legalization, with a provision forbidding the city from spending federal or local funds to "enact" the law. But District leaders argued the initiative was already enacted, which happened when voters approved the law.

Chaffetz says that interpretation is wrong and that legalizing pot on Thursday as Bowser plans would be clearly illegal.

In an interview Wednesday, Chaffetz said the mayor and other district employees would face possible prison time by moving forward.

"The penalties are severe, and we're serious about this. Nobody's wishing or wanting that to happen, but the law is clear,'' he said.

“I have a lot of things to do here in the District of Columbia, and me being in jail wouldn’t be a good thing,” Bowser said.

The letter was also signed by Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees city government spending.

Bowser said she is reviewing the letter.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sided with D.C.

"I concur with the legal analysis of the District of Columbia and other congressional leaders that the omnibus spending bill passed in December does not repeal or block the implementation of this initiative," her statement said. "I said this in December and reiterated my views in a meeting with Mayor Bowser earlier this month."

No one has ever been convicted of violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, although government employees have been punished administratively for violations.

The district would become the first place east of the Mississippi River with legal recreational pot. Alaska also legalized marijuana this week, becoming the third state to do so.

"Washington, D.C., has a lot to offer. A haven for smoking pot is not one of them,'' Chaffetz said. "It's not just me. The Congress voted on it and the president signed it into law.''

Congress has final say over laws passed by the D.C. Council or approved by District voters, although it hasn't struck down a specific city law in 25 years. Instead, members often add language to critical pieces of federal legislation to undo city policies they don't like. The language on pot was included in a spending bill that was needed to keep the government running.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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