Pubdate: Wed, 14 Jan 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis


The District of Columbia defied the new Republican Congress on 
Tuesday, challenging the House and Senate to either block or let 
stand a voter-approved ballot measure to legalize marijuana in the 
nation's capital.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent the measure to Capitol 
Hill, starting the clock on a 30-day review window that Congress has 
used only three times in 40 years to quash a local D.C. law.

If Congress or President Obama do not act to block it, the ballot 
measure permitting possession of up to two ounces and home 
cultivation of pot could become law in the District as early as March.

Another possible scenario, however, is that Tuesday's move would 
launch a rocky year of legal battles - and thrust a final decision on 
pot legalization in the city into the hands of federal courts.

Mendelson took the provocative step of sending the marijuana measure 
to Congress despite a federal spending bill passed last month and 
signed by the president that explicitly prohibits the District from 
enacting new laws to reduce penalties for drug possession.

Conservative House Republicans boasted at the time that the paragraph 
tucked into the 900-page, $1 trillion spending bill halted the city 
from following Colorado and Washington state into a closely watched 
experiment to legalize marijuana.

"That issue has come and gone," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz last month. 
The Utah Republican is the new chairman of the powerful committee 
with oversight of D.C. issues and is an outspoken opponent of 
marijuana legalization. In a December interview, Chaffetz warned that 
any attempt by the District to move forward on legalization would be 
"ill-advised and fruitless."

But Mendelson - backed by the new mayor, Muriel E. Bowser (D) - vowed 
to carry out the will of the 7 in 10 D.C. voters who supported Initiative 71.

Mendelson, Bowser and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's 
nonvoting House member, said they have a solid legal basis for 
pressing forward with implementing the ballot measure. The spending 
bill, they said, prohibits the District from using taxpayer funds to 
"enact" new laws that loosen drug restrictions - but not to implement 
official acts.

Under D.C. law, ballot measures are considered official acts - equal 
to bills passed by the D.C. Council - once election results are 
certified. The city's Nov. 4 election results were certified Dec. 3, 
a week before Congress passed the spending bill that included the 
restriction on any new laws.

In letters dated Tuesday and addressed to Vice President Biden and 
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Mendelson noted the dates, 
saying the pot law was a done deal before the federal spending bill was passed.

In an interview this week, Mendelson played down the issue, saying 
there was "nothing special" about transmitting the measure despite 
warnings from Republicans in Congress. He also stressed that he 
wasn't seeking a confrontation with Congress.

"I have no choice," Mendelson said. "The law says that I must 
transmit the measure. That is all I am doing."

The business-as-usual stance is key because in 1998, Congress 
similarly restricted the expenditure of taxpayer funds in order to 
block a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana. Once Congress 
acted, D.C. election officials declined to spend even $1.64 to finish 
counting ballots, fearing retribution from Congress. The city's 
medical marijuana law ultimately stalled for more than a decade.

To underscore that the District was making no special expenditure 
this week to take the final steps to make Initiative 71 law, 
Mendelson did little to draw attention to Tuesday's effort to get the 
measure to Congress. Legislative staffers bundled it in manila 
envelopes with 20 other acts of the D.C. Council that were due before 
Congress for a standard 30-day review. The city also did not alter 
the monthly schedule to send the package to Congress. Legislative 
staffers said they could not single out any particular cost for the 
envelope, printing or other packaging of the ballot measure.

In a statement after the initiative reached Congress, Rep. Andy 
Harris (R-Md.), a leading opponent of marijuana legalization, 
cautioned that the District was attempting to subvert the intent of 
Congress and to rewrite the definition of when a bill becomes law - 
in the District's case, always following congressional review.

"Despite attempts to misconstrue the language of the omnibus bill, it 
is clear that if D.C. chooses to proceed with enactment of marijuana 
legalization, they will be in violation of the law," Harris said.

The District faces a host of other challenges should its effort to 
implement the ballot measure succeed.

Mendelson said there is no doubt that the federal prohibition on 
looser drug laws will prevent the District from adopting a system for 
legal sales and taxation of marijuana, like in Colorado and Washington state.

Before she pledged to fight the congressional interference, Bowser, 
the new mayor, said she feared that moving forward with one but not 
the other could lead to open-air drug markets and tie the hands of police.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom