What’s Next for Legal Weed in Washington, DC?

Will Congress block marijuana legalization in the nation's capital?

Nov 25 2014, 5:00am

​Marijuana legalization advocates who have been working for years to make pot legal in Washington, DC, aren't quite sure what to do with themselves these days.

"I feel like the dog who finally caught the car," Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, said at panel discussion last week. "What do I do with it now, you know?"

For the moment, Tree and fellow organizers have all the momentum on their side. Nearly 70 percent of voters in the District cast ballots this month to legalize recreational marijuana. The city's incoming mayor, Muriel Bowser, is for it. A majority of the DC Council appears to support it as well, and is now looking at a bill to tax and regulate sales of pot, which wasn't included in the initiative.

A mark-up on that bill is expected on Tuesday, but due to the short amount of time left in the current council sessions, the full bill will likely not be introduced until January, said Christina Henderson, deputy chief of staff for DC Councilman David Grosso.

Henderson said the legislation has been revised to align with the Cole ​memo, a 2013 Justice Department memo that set guidelines for US attorneys on enforcing federal drug laws in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana. In the meantime, the DC Council has been picking the brains of public officials in Colorado and Washington, where voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

But when people ask Henderson what's the biggest problem going forward with legalization, she likes to joke, "Well, we have 535 problems," referencing the number of members of Congress.

As part of the city's bizarre relationship with the federal government, Congress has 60 days to review any law passed by the Council. The review will give anti-pot Congressmen like Maryland Republican Representative Andy Harris a chance to try to block the news laws from being enacted. Harris has s​aid that he will "consider using all resources available to a member of Congress to stop this action, so that drug use among teens does not increase"—which is to say that he'll use any means he can to try and stop legalization from going forward in the nation's capital.

One path for opponents in Congress to nullify legalization would be to pass a "resolution of disapproval" during the 60-day review. But the resolution would have to pass both chambers of Congress and get a signature from President Obama, and the future Republican congressional leadership is already lining up a busy schedule of bills it wants to advance. Meanwhile, the White House has previously​ threatened to veto any legislation that meddled with DC's autonomy.

The other option would be attaching a rider to an appropriations bill, which Harris attempted to do earlier this year. Republicans used similar tactics to block medical marijuana dispensaries in DC for 11 years after voters passed a 1998 measure legalizing medical pot. But thanks to the incredibly slow-turning wheels of the federal bureaucracy, those appropriations bills aren't likely to reach the floor of Congress until late next year, by which time the Council will probably have already passed its tax-and-regulate bill. If congressional opponents succeeded in cutting funding at that point, it would just turn DC into a legal but totally unregulated weed market.

And so far, there's been no indication that GOP leadership in Congress wants to pick a fight. The optics would be terrible: Republicans would be meddling with a local measure that passed by an overwhelming margin largely on a racial justice platform in a city that, up until recently, was majority black. Plus, any attempt to block DC weed legalization could split the libertarian and conservative wings of the Republican caucus at a time when the GOP is trying to project unity and efficiency.

"I'm not for having the federal government get involved," Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul t​old Roll Call earlier this month. "I really haven't taken a stand on ... the actual legalization. I haven't really taken a stand on that, but I'm against the federal government telling them they can't."

A 2013 ACLU rep​ortfound that, between 2001 and 2010, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the District of Columbia were black. Seema Sadanandan, the ACLU's programs director for the DC area, said the report found barely any marijuana arrests west of 16th Street, one of the traditional dividing lines between rich and poor—and white and black—neighborhoods in DC, despite the fact that several universities are located west of the line. "Marijuana is already constructively legal west of 16th Street," Sadanandan said.

Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's non-voting representative in Congress said in a press release that "Initiative 71 is not just about the legalization of marijuana; it addresses an intolerable racial disparity in our city that has crippled the life chances of countless African Americans and Hispanics."

Norton has promised to give any members who try to interfere "the fight of their lives."

"DC residents can rest assured that when a mandate comes directly from the people, they haven't seen a fight like the fight I'm preparing to make against Rep. Andy Harris and any other Member of Congress who attempts to undo our democratic process," she said.

Angry DC residents have been flooding Harris's office with calls complaining about their trash collection and other city services. When a staffer explains that they don't live in Harris's District, the callers respond, "Then why are you messing with our weed laws?" with occasionally an expletive or two thrown in for good measure.

For its part, the Justice Department said it is sticking to the guide​lines it issued last year for enforcing federal law in Colorado and Washington. Those guidelines ordered US Attorneys to prioritize, among other things, stopping large-scale drug trafficking operations and distribution of marijuana to minors, rather than marijuana sales that are legal under state laws.

"As our Augist 29, 2013 guidance memorandum laid out, the department's enforcement resources will continue to be aimed at the most significant threats to our communities," a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement to VICE. "This approach relies on jurisdictions instituting strict regulatory regimes to adequately protect public safety."

The US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia had no comment and directed inquiries to the Justice Department.

Even if the tax-and-regulate system proposed by the DC Council isn't torpedoed by Congress, there will still be challenges in enforcing the city's new legal weed laws. DC's chief financial officer estim​ated the legal market could bring in $130 million a year in revenue for the city, and where that money goes will be closely watched by activists.

But despite Republicans' past success at blocking legalization, pro-pot panelists at last week's event were bullish on their prospects. "Surviving Congress is what's next, and I think we win," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"What is great about DC is it's the first to decriminalize through a primarily racial justice lens, the first to legalize through a racial justice lens, and I think it will be the first to tax and regulate through that lens," he added.

Follow CJ Ciaramella on Tw​itter.

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