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Thanks to Congress, DC's Weed Legalization Is Going to Be a Nightmare

Washington, DC is set to move forward with weed legalization by the end of this week. But thanks to congressional meddling, the estimated $130 million local marijuana market will stay untaxed, unregulated, and underground.
Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Marijuana will be legal in Washington, DC as soon as Thursday, but thanks to Republicans in Congress, the estimated $130 million local marijuana market will be stuck in legal limbo, with all sales remaining on the black market and not a penny of tax revenue going into the city's coffers.

City officials, police, and activists have been preparing for an orderly transition to legal pot since voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 71 in November, legalizing the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana. But because of a provision slipped into an end-of-year spending bill by Maryland GOP Rep. Andy Harris, the city is barred from spending any money to implement the ballot measure, and thus from establishing any rules to govern legal marijuana sales.


"First we had taxation without representation, and now we've got legalization without commercialization," Adam Eidinger, the chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, said in an interview with VICE.

The situation leaves DC in a strange position. While city officials are forbidden from doing anything about the legalization law—on advice from the DC Attorney General, the DC Council couldn't even hold an official hearing on taxing and regulating weed for fear that the city could face a lawsuit for violating Congress's ban, instead slyly downgrading a recent meeting to a "roundtable discussion"—they also moved ahead with submitting Initiative 71 for a 30-day congressional review required of all new DC laws , essentially daring Republicans to strike down the measure outright.

Based on the current congressional calendar, that review period is up on Thursday. At that point legalization will go into effect, although law could still be challenged in court by a DC resident or by the US Justice Department. According to theWashington Post, the city attorney general has issued guidance to the Metropolitan Police Department telling cops not to arrest or issue fines for marijuana possession, or use it as a pretext for other criminal investigations.

"The District government has been assessing the law," an MPD spokesperson said in a statement to VICE, noting that "while there are still some novel scenarios to be resolved," the provisions of the initiative are "very clear."


In the meantime, the marijuana marketplace will remain underground, without the regulatory structure or industry business models that have characterized full weed legalization in Colorado and Washington. An expo for would-be weed entrepreneurs in the District is scheduled for this weekend, and the National Cannabis Industry Association plans to descend on Capitol Hill for a national symposium and lobbying push in April.

Eidinger, of the DC Cannabis Campaign, said there are also plans in the works for a massive marijuana seed giveaway sometime in March, although he declined to give details, on the advice of lawyers. With the legal weed just days from becoming a reality, activists are just trying not to slip up. "This is like the end of the Super Bowl," he said. "You're this close to winning, but you better not throw the ball.

Republicans in Congress aren't likely to disappear so easily though. Several prominent drug war hardliners—including Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee—are still threatening legal action. "Looking at the Constitution, Washington, DC is different. They are not a state and we have a role to play and the Congress passed this," Chaffetz told CNN earlier this month. "I respect the people who live here and most everything passes through without a problem. But the idea that this is going to be a haven for pot smoking, I can't support that."


"We may very well head to the courts," he continued. "Some legal folks in the city of Washington, DC may beg to differ, but I think we've been crystal clear. You haven't heard the end of it. It will come back again."

City officials and activists have all been pushing back against the idea that the nation's capital will become a marijuana free-for-all. In an interview with VICE, a city official said that upcoming legalization is only an "incremental change" from last year's decriminalization law, which downgraded possession to a $25 fine. Smoking weed in public will still be illegal, as will possessing weed on federal property, which makes up about 21 percent of land in DC.

Malik Burnett, the policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in an interview that the situation in DC will be similar to the periods in Colorado, Washington and Alaska after voters had passed marijuana legalization laws, but before state governments had put regulations in place.

"The only thing that District residents will see in their day-to-day life is police will stop arresting people for possession," Burnett said. "Other than that life will go on as normal." If there is a legal challenge from Congress, Burnett said it's unclear what the charges leveled against the District would be.

"This is a real fundamental question we don't have an answer to, and I don't think they do either," Burnett said. "I think they're interested, but I don't know how they can accomplish that."