Pot Fight Between D.C. Mayor, Congress Could Cost City

D.C.'s new mayor gave her constituents what they wanted: the ability to legally grow and share marijuana in private.

Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser had little choice, given the overwhelming voter support for the legalization initiative and the unanimous opinion from her legal team that Congress couldn't block it.

"D.C. residents have spoken,'' said Rica Madrid, 34, a public-relations consultant and activist who said she feels less anxious about smoking at home now that it's legal. "People here in this urban area, we see that the harm of the drug war is much more intense than the harm of the drug itself.''

But that doesn't mean there won't be consequences for the District of Columbia.

Republicans in Congress are angry that the city went ahead and legalized pot Thursday, despite their warnings that it would violate federal law. They've even suggested Bowser and other city officials could go to prison. While that's highly unlikely, Republicans could get their point across by reducing or restricting some of the federal money that flows to the city every year.

"We provide half a billion dollars (annually) to the District. One would think they would be much more compliant with the wishes of Congress,'' Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and one of the most vocal pot opponents, said in an interview Thursday.

Actually, the District received more than $670 million in federal funding last year to support its $11 billion budget. The federal money is earmarked for specific programs, including the city's court system.

Republicans will "find some areas where perhaps we have been very generous with the citizens of the District. That will all come with time,'' Harris warned.

Harris didn't mention any specific programs, but Congress could make another run at loosening the city's tough gun-control laws. It could also reduce funding for school construction, HIV prevention or a popular program that gives District residents a break on tuition at public universities in other states.

Even top advocates of city autonomy are preparing for tough times on Capitol Hill.

"I do believe it's likely this is a short-lived victory,'' said Kimberly Perry, executive director of D.C. Vote. "Members of the House are going to come after D.C. with a vengeance on appropriations for 2016.''

The fight over pot illustrates the always-fractious relationship between the city's elected local leaders and Congress, which has the final say over the city's budget and laws. Bowser has pledged to strengthen the city's relationships on Capitol Hill and work together to advance common goals. Now, that might not be possible.

Congress has already ensured that the District can't allow marijuana to be sold legally, like in Colorado and Washington state. The new law makes it legal to possess up to 2 ounces of pot or up to six total plants (three mature) for use in the home. People can also give away up to 1 ounce.

Smoking in public and possession on federal property remain illegal. The main difference is that city police will no longer be issuing $25 civil fines for possession.

Before legalization took effect, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, sent Bowser a letter urging her to reconsider and warning her that the city is violating a law that bans federal agencies from spending money they don't have.

Bowser spoke with Chaffetz by phone just before announcing in a news conference Wednesday that she wasn't backing down. She emphasized that her goal was not to defy Congress, but to honor the will of the voters, said her spokesman, Michael Czin.

"I think that we're going to continue with our good-faith discussions with the chairman around the issues that are important to the District,'' she said Wednesday. "We do disagree on a matter of law. There are reasonable ways to resolve that without us threatening him or he us.''

Bowser's predecessor, Vincent Gray, also had high-profile skirmishes with Congress, but was able to work with the previous oversight committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, to push for what District leaders call "budget autonomy'' -- the freedom to spend local tax revenue without authorization by Congress.

The warnings from Chaffetz and Harris suggest the District can't expect to win any more independence.

"Mr. Issa had a more pragmatic perspective and was willing to hear us out, work with us and not be public about the battles,'' said Janene Jackson, who was Gray's liaison to Congress and is now a lobbyist with Holland & Knight. "This is a very public difference of opinion. The letter stated severe consequences. It does not bode well.''

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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