D.C. Legalizes Marijuana Despite Congress' Threats

The city that brought America government shutdowns and all-night filibusters is set to make pot legal on Thursday. But by the time the chaos over implementing the law is settled, most everyone in the District of Columbia might wish they were smoking some.
by | February 26, 2015 AT 11:00 AM

By Noah Bierman

The city that brought America government shutdowns and all-night filibusters is set to make pot legal on Thursday. But by the time the chaos over implementing the law is settled, most everyone in the District of Columbia might wish they were smoking some.

Residents voted overwhelmingly in November to allow growing and possessing small amounts of marijuana. But Congress, using its oversight authority over the nation's capital, inserted a provision into a massive December spending deal that prevented the local government from enacting the law.

A dispute over the meaning of "enact" has left a significant haze of uncertainty over what exactly is legal. It has also sparked a standoff between the Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, and the Republican-led Congress, which has made oblique threats of jailing city officials if they proceed with legalization.

The dispute highlights the constant tension over autonomy in this city of largely liberal voters that is overseen by an increasingly conservative Congress. The local issue also holds symbolic value in the national battle over marijuana laws, given the district's position as the headquarters in the war on drugs.

"We're the nation's capital, so I feel like it just makes people uneasy," said Ellen Bloom, a 24-year-old resident who said she voted for legalization but does not smoke pot. Bloom was strolling through Lafayette Park, a few hundred yards from the White House, on Wednesday. "Maybe it'll set the stage for the rest of the country, if D.C. has it legalized."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs the committee that oversees the district, warned city officials in a letter Tuesday that they would be "in willful violation of the law" if they moved forward with legalization.

His letter, also signed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), announced an investigation and demanded a list of city employees "who participated in any way in any action related to enactment" in crafting the city's marijuana guidelines released this week.

But legalization advocates and city officials argue that they are simply carrying out a law that voters enacted. At least one pro-marijuana lobbyist said his side worked to prevent stricter language in the December spending law that allies felt could have gone further to hamstring the city.

And Congress failed to use its specific authority to overturn the marijuana law within an official review period, which expired Wednesday.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's non-voting delegate in the House, was furious over what she called "unnecessarily hostile congressional reactions."

"There could be a good-faith disagreement over the language here," said Norton, who supports legalization and says she helped the city with its legal interpretation. "That's all there is. And baseless threats won't heal it."

Norton, a Democrat, says her support is based on studies showing minorities have been disproportionately marked with criminal records. She insists the district is not trying to defy Congress, even as many residents complain that its authority over local matters is overbearing.

"We understand their authority," she said. "We understand it so well we want to get statehood so they don't have that authority."

The fight with Congress has prevented the City Council from studying more specific regulations, or crafting ways to allow legal pot sales, as Colorado and Washington state have done. Alaska, which this week became the third state to legalize pot for recreational use, also lacks regulations to create a legal pot market. (Oregon voters legalized pot in November, but it won't become legal there until July.)

The bare-bones rules released by Bowser and Police Chief Cathy Lanier on Tuesday  were intended to make clear that pot possession is restricted to less than two ounces and is legal only for adults over 21.

Marijuana cannot be sold, nor can it be used in public. Driving while high also remains illegal. Marijuana is already decriminalized in the district, so Bowser characterized legalization as an incremental step.

A city website poses a number of questions in Q&A format, including whether D.C. is "going to be like Amsterdam" (no) and whether one "can eat a marijuana brownie at a park" or bus stop (also no).

But there are plenty of unanswered questions, including whether the plants themselves can be grown outside on private property and where a law-abiding citizen might obtain the means to grow them.

"I don't know of a way to legally get the seeds," said Aaron Houston, a strategist for Weedmaps, a consumer website that tracks marijuana sales. "It's possible some activist will take the risk of just preemptively distributing the seeds on their own."

City leaders want to prevent marijuana clubs from forming, but have not yet passed an ordinance to ban them.

There is also a question of federal regulation in a city that has multiple law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction.

"When Colorado legalizes marijuana, there's a buffer of Rocky Mountains and eastern plains," Houston said. "Here, the DEA or the FBI only have a few blocks to go."

Opponents of legalization say those on the other side of the debate may be overplaying their hand in Washington, particularly if the council attempts to set up a legal distribution system and collect taxes, as some have advocated.

"I don't think Congress, especially this Congress, is just going to roll over and play dead," said Kevin Sabet, a former advisor to three presidents who is executive director of the anti-legalization group called SAM.

He added: "I find it a little astonishing that the collective group-think on this has been that D.C. residents really want a marijuana store down the street from their kids' school."

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