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Angry Weed Activists Demand Congress Stop Trying to Block DC Legalization

So far, Republicans haven't followed through on a threat to arrest DC officials over weed legalization, but a congressional investigation is still looming.

by CJ Ciaramella
Mar 18 2015, 6:53pm

Adam Eidinger, of the DC Cannabis Campaign, offers a peace pipe to a staffer for Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Photo by Washington Post

Yesterday was just a regular Tuesday on Capitol Hill, which means somewhere, a congressman was resigning amid an interior decorating scandal, and a handful of noisy protesters in colonial costumes were trying to get themselves thrown out of the building.

On this particular Tuesday, the costumed demonstrators were members of the DC Cannabis Campaign and other local statehood activists, dressed in breeches and tricornered hats for what they rather unimaginatively referred to as "Ye Olde Colonial Day." More specifically, there were there to protest Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who has clashed publicly with the city over its implementation of a voter-approved initiative to legalize marijuana in the District.

It was yet another dustup in what has become a never-ending saga over DC's new marijuana law. Chaffetz, who heads the House committee in charge of overseeing the nation's capital city, has taken the lead in trying to block the initiative, and sent a letter last month threatening to arrest DC Mayor Muriel Bowser if she and the DC Council moved forward with legalizing pot. So far, they haven't followed through on the threat, but a congressional investigation is still looming.

At issue is the question of whether the city violated a rider House Republicans slipped into an end-of-year spending bill, which blocked the District from using any federal or local funds to enact legalization. Arguing that the law was enacted when it was approved by DC voters, District officials went ahead and legalized marijuana possession last month, but are effectively barred from setting up any mechanism to tax and regulate the newmarket.

The fight has sparked old debates over the District's right to self-determination, stirring up tensions between DC statehood activists and their federal overlords in Congress. Although DC won the right to home rule in 1973, Congress has final say over the city's budget, and has periodically used its power of the purse to block various, mostly liberal, initiatives in the city. Federal lawmakers stalled the District's medical marijuana law for more than a decade, and have also prohibited the city from using funds for needle exchange programs, or abortion services.

So statehood activists are perhaps understandably chafed when a congressman from Utah or Maryland tries to impose his will on Washington, DC, a city whose roughly 650,000 tax-paying residents aren't represented by a single voting member in Congress.

"We don't want people to forget the fundamental fact that Chaffetz supports overturning a vote of the people," James Jones, a spokesman for DC Votes, told reporters in the hallway outside Chaffetz's office Tuesday, before the tiny cluster of activists stormed in, a swarm of reporters and photographers in tow. "We're sick of the forceful imposition of conservative values on DC citizens," one of the protestors informed a Chaffetz staffer.

Adam Eidinger, the chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign who had donned was a top hat for the occasion, brought along a long, Gandalf-style glass pipe (unused, he assured the staffers) as a peace offering to Chaffetz. "It's symbolic. It's a gesture," Eidinger said. "We want to be respected, and we think that the Republican Party respects home rule and that this committee needs to show it and convince people that the Republican Party is not obtuse to local democracy."

The protest, Eidinger said, was designed to start a dialogue with Chaffetz. But he warned that there could be more serious demonstrations to come if the congressman wasn't open to hearing them out. "There's people from around the country who want to come here and smoke pot in your office," Eidinger said. "I'm trying to tell them no."

"Oh believe me, we've heard," an aide replied.

It's not clear where either side will go from here. Despite threats from Republicans, it's doubtful that Congress could take legal action against the DC government for going through with legalization. The arcane law Chaffetz cited in his initial warning letter to city officials—the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies and jurisdictions from spending funds that haven't been appropriated— has never been used to prosecute anyone. Plus, House Republicans would have to convince Obama's Justice Department to open the investigation, which seems unlikely.

In the meantime, DC Council officials have begun submitting documents in response to the congressional investigation, according to a report from CQ Roll Call. Asked to comment, a spokesperson for Chaffetz told VICE Tuesday that the congressman's office is "working with the city on this matter."

For the moment, the two sides appear to have reached a stalemate. Contrary to what some feared, DC's unregulated marijuana market has not become a Wild West for legal weed, atleast not yet. Unable to come up with a viable way to work around Congress's prohibitions, the city has been hammering out what laws it can, such as banning private marijuana clubs in the city.

At Tuesday's protests, activists quietly left Chaffetz's office after staffers politely but firmly showed activists the door. According to DC Cannabis Campaign spokesman Nikolas Schiller, the interaction went better than expected. "Usually they kick us out in under a minute," he said.

Back out in the hall, the activists walked down to an Oversight Committee hearing, where Chaffetz had been grilling FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for most of the morning. The hearing adjourned a few minutes after everyone arrived. The activists tried to get a word in with their target, but were blocked by a plainclothes security guard. Reporters had better access. "Do you have anything to say to the DC pot protesters who are here?" a journalist from US News and World Report shouted.

"Welcome to Congress!" Chaffetz replied as he headed for the exit.

"Accept the peace pipe," Eidinger yelled back, hoisting his blue glass pipe in the air. "Let's start over!" But Chaffetz was already gone.

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