D.C. Council Heads for Showdown With Congress Over Pot

The District government is headed for a showdown with Congress over the city's effort to legalize marijuana possession.

The city says unless Congress passes a new law blocking it, D.C.'s marijuana law approved by voters last November will take effect later this month.

Republican leaders in the House insist Congress voted last year to bar the city from spending any money to enact the pot law. But the District says the congress acted too late to stop the legalization bill itself from going into effect.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says that means confusion. "The approach that Congress took to limit our ability to spend money [to regulate the law and tax it] creates a real challenge in terms of, we will have a legalized drug that we cannot [spend money to] regulate."

It's an unprecedented standoff and it's unclear what will happen next.

If the city proceeds with the law, Congress could do nothing, or file contempt of Congress charges against city officials.

On Monday, the D.C. Council held a public discussion on how the District might regulate and tax marijuana sales, but it took no formal action to avoid worsening the dispute with Congress.

The meeting was originally supposed to be a hearing, but it was downgraded over fears that it would be illegal to consider the bill.

Council members had planned to consider a proposal that would tax and regulate marijuana as the District does with alcohol, as well as a bill that would ban potential employers from testing people for marijuana until after they are hired.

Last November, D.C. voters approved Initiative 71, which legalized the possession of pot for recreational use. But 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.

District officials dispute that Congress has the power to do that, arguing that the law has already been enacted -- by the citizens who voted for it.

Accordingly, the Council sent the law to Capitol Hill for review last month, as all D.C. laws must before they go into effect.

Congress has not taken action on the bill yet, which is why the District has tried to move forward.

The city believes that the marijuana legalization law will go into effect within the next few weeks, once the 30-day legislative review period has passed.

House Republicans, however, believe that their spending bill blocked D.C. from spending any money to implement to enact the new law.

Although Racine wrote a letter to the Council over the weekend, warning Council members not to hold a public hearing, he said he agreed that the marijuana legalization law has already been enacted by the voters.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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