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Washington, DC's Mayor Has Defied GOP Threats and Legalized Pot

DC lawmakers maintain they have the legal authority to implement their pot legalization initiative in the face of ongoing standoff with Capitol Hill conservatives.

by Liz Fields
Feb 26 2015, 7:30pm

Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

As of 12:01 this morning, residents in Washington, DC are officially legally allowed to own around two ounces of marijuana, or 60 decent-sized joints' worth — a small step toward the full-blown marijuana laws district officials are hoping to pass in coming months, but that members of Congress are determined to block.

Despite House Republicans' threats to imprison DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on Wednesday if she plowed ahead with plans to enact Initiative 71, the popular pot legalization measure kicked in Thursday, almost three months after 70 percent of district residents voted to pass it in November.

Bowser defied a stern letter from Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and colleagues warning that she could face the US Justice Department and jail time if she did not back down from the District's decision to allow adults 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, smoke pot at home, grow up to three flowering plants, and give away or swap up to an ounce.

"We are acting lawfully," Bowser said in a televised press conference Wednesday. "I have a lot of things to do in the District of Columbia. Me being in jail wouldn't be a good thing."

The enactment of Initiative 71 comes at the end of weeks of political bickering between district lawmakers and the feds on Capitol Hill, who controls DC's budget.

Although DC's legalization measure has officially survived its 30-day congressional review, it has come out the other end of the political sausage maker missing several key elements, including crucial accompaniments like the funding to regulate the sale and taxation of pot.

Republicans in the House can be thanked for the gap between legalization and regulation, as they introduced a "rider" to an unrelated federal spending bill in December that essentially blocked the District's council from using federal funds to implement the initiative.

Bowser and the city council have vowed to fight any legal challenges to legalization, but it seems that despite attempts to intimidate district officials, House Republicans have backed off their initial fierce pledges to block legal pot in the District at all costs. During the 30-day review period, no one made any serious efforts to block the initiative or throw in last minute challenges.

Related: A DC-cased anti-pot group is suing Colorado over marijuana laws as the capital poises for legalization

Even the initiative's most vocal objector reportedly said Wednesday that Republicans won't be pursuing legal action against the city, and that prosecution of DC lawmakers should rest instead with President Barack Obama's justice department — which is unlikely given Obama's repeated references to state's tackling the matter.

"I think the attorney general should prosecute people in the District who participate in this under the Anti-Deficiency Act," Republican Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, who introduced the budget rider to Congress, told the Washington Post.

The federal Anti-Deficiency Act is legislation aimed at preventing government employees from spending public funds outside of their appropriated budgets.

Several Congressional Democrats stood behind DC's decision not to back down Thursday, saying that Bower and council members have a clear mandate to effect legalization.

"It is very troubling that Republicans would threaten elected District officials for implementing the measure resoundingly passed by the District of Columbia's voters," House Democrat and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

Nationwide, marijuana remains banned under federal law and is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance — along with LSD, heroin, and other drugs that have no perceived medical value in the eyes of the government.

A Department of Justice memorandum issued last year, however, essentially said the feds would take a hands-off approach to enforcement in states that voted to legalize pot — so long as they follow a few federal guidelines.

DC council member David Grosso quietly introduced legislation in January to tax and regulate pot like alcohol and create a framework for licensed cultivators, product manufacturers, retail stores, and testing labs in the District. That bill is currently on hold as the council continues to seek a way around Congress' rider.

Related: Legal weed in Washington state has been completely screwed up

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields