Marijuana's Now Legal in D.C. — But What Happens Now?

Possession of small amounts of marijuana is now legal in D.C., but that doesn't mean the matter is closed. Congress may still move to prohibit city leaders from enforcing the new law, and if it doesn't, local law enforcement will have to navigate the waters.

In the lead-up to the 12:01 a.m. Thursday legalization, some members of Congress threatened prison time for D.C. officials over the law. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser late Tuesday asking her to reconsider moving forward with legalization. Chaffetz chairs the House Oversight Committee, which has authority over District government.

In response, D.C. leaders vowed not to back down. Bowser said her administration was "committed to upholding the will of D.C. voters. We will implement Initiative 71 in a thoughtful, responsible way."

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said the pot measure "is the law... nothing more and nothing less."

Nonetheless, city officials are anxious over the law, hoping that there will not be any sort of embarrassing or public incident linked to marijuana use, which would set the wrong tone. And local law enforcement officers will have to determine how to best enforce the new regulations, which allow for some discretion.

News4’s Jackie Bensen attended a “count down” party at Madam’s Organ in Adams Morgan Wednesday night, as attendants celebrated soon-to-be legal marijuana possession in the District.

How Will D.C. Police Enforce the Law?

D.C. police officers are now carrying small, double-sided information cards spelling out what the law does and does not cover.

The new law is not sweeping: It permits possession of up to two ounces, sharing up to one ounce, and allows for limited home cultivation, and only for those age 21 and older. The sale of marijuana remains illegal, as does any sort of public consumption.

And the law does not pertain to federally owned land in the District, where any marijuana possession or use remains illegal. The question for D.C. officers will be how to enforce the law with discretion and fairness. City officials won't publicly acknowledge it, but leaders are cautioning all law enforcement not to be overzealous.

Lanier said officers will be alert to people under any influence, but that officers can use discretion. If an officer sees people smoking on the street, the officer can warn them to go inside; they are not required to make an arrest.

Public housing police have a trickier situation, though, because D.C.'s public housing is considered federal housing.

D.C. Council Member Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) said Monday that she was concerned that residents of public housing, who don't have anywhere else to go, could be evicted due to misunderstandings of the new law.

The law is murkier when it comes to rented apartments, where the law leaves discretion up to landlords. Homeowners associations can also vote to prohibit the use of marijuana in their communities.

Several D.C. universities -- including American, Catholic, Georgetown, George Washington and Howard -- will not alter their existing drug policies. Officials from each school said Thursday that the use of marijuana on campus is still strictly prohibited, and students who possess or use the drug will still face disciplinary sanctions.

Driving while impaired by any substance remains illegal. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that officers will not have to prove that a driver is impaired by marijuana specifically, just that the driver is impaired.

What Can Congress Do Now -- And Will It Do Anything?

The political concerns are different than the practical ones. A handful of U.S. representatives, some very conservative, are outspokenly against legalization, opposing it more aggressively than they did with medical marijuana or mere decriminalization. For these lawmakers, legalization may be their tipping point.

Going forward, it's possible that -- within 48 hours of legalization -- Congress will pass a Department of Homeland Security funding bill with a rider penned by conservatives, saying D.C. officials cannot enforce the legalization law.

While it could happen, it's not clear that it will.

No U.S. senators are actively opposing the D.C. law, and while Senate Republicans are fighting with House Republicans over major national issues, it's unclear whether they will tackle marijuana.

Natalie Lylo contributed to this report.

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