DC Politicians Want to Start a War With Congress Over Legal Weed

City officials think they've figured out a way to get around Congress's ban on legalizing recreational marijuana in the nation's capital.

by CJ Ciaramella
Dec 19 2014, 6:09pm

Photo by Keith Ivey via Flickr

Despite interference from busy bodies in Congress, politicians and activists in Washington, DC are planning to move forward with the city's recent initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, setting up what will likely be a long round of legal wrangling and challenges between the city and Capitol Hill.

DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson told the Washington Post this week that he plans on sending the legalization initiative, which passed this November with nearly 70 percent of the vote, to Congress in early January, as required with any law passed in the city.

The move could provoke a showdown with House Republicans who, led by Maryland Congressman Andy Harris, successfully included provisions blocking the legalization law in the $1.1 trillion spending bill that Congress passed last weekend. Members of the DC Council and their allies on Capitol Hill believe that the language of that provision could be murky enough to allow the city to go through with legalization anyway. In the final bill, DC is only barred from using funds to "enact" its marijuana reform laws—not "enact and carry out" as Harris's rider originally read.

It's a tiny technicality, but according to DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting member in Congress, Democratic budget negotiators intentionally muddied the language to give city officials a chance to work around the measure. The argument here is that by presenting the law to Congress, the DC Council would simply be carrying out the voter-approved marijuana measure, not enacting it.

The catch is that the city can't spend any money to move forward with the measure, because doing so would give Republicans an opening to claim the city is violating the ban on spending. And they're not above such petty grievances: House Republicans successfully blocked DC's 1998 medical marijuana initiative for a decade because the city's election department couldn't spend $1.64 to tally the ballot results.

Harris thinks DC should check itself, lest it wreck itself. "The intent of Congress is clear — and has strong bipartisan support," he told the Post. But while he may have notched a win this month, it's not clear if Republican leaders have the political will to get into an ugly legal battle over DC autonomy in the next Congress. That fight could illustrate the divide between drug policy hawks and more libertarian-leaning conservatives in the GOP, and risks putting the party on the wrong side of public opinion going into the 2016 election.

Regardless of how Congress deals with DC weed, though, a high-profile clash over the marijuana issue may soon be unavoidable. On Thursday, state attorneys general in Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a lawsuit with the US Supreme Court against Colorado for its legalization of marijuana. Meanwhile, the same omnibus spending bill that blocked DC's legalization efforts also forbids the Justice Department and DEA from prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries and patients that are following state regulations.

After a grueling election season, said his group is in "holiday mode right now," but legalization activists say they plan to keep up the pressure on Congress when the new session begins next year. Organizers are planning a vigil in January "to demand Congress provide District of Columbia residents the same democratic rights enjoyed by Americans of the 50 states."

"We're going to do a 420-hour DC democracy vigil somewhere near the Capitol," said Nikolas Schiller, communications director for DC Cannabis Campaign. "That works out to about 17 and a half days."

If the initiative manages to make it through the 30-day congressional review period, activists say they also plan on organizing a seed exchange and giveaway. Unlike states that have legalized recreational marijuana, DC's law legalizes possession for personal use, but not weed sales. The DC Council was working on a plan to tax and regulate legal marijuana, but that legislation will likely be barred by the congressional provisions.

"One thing that's going to happen is people are going to want to learn how to grow cannabis," said Schiller. "So we hope we can facilitate the empowerment of DC residents to grow their own."

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