Pubdate: Sun, 08 Feb 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Jennifer Steinhauer


WASHINGTON - Last fall, voters in the District of Columbia chose to 
join a handful of states in legalizing the growth and possession of 
small amounts of marijuana. But unlike in the states, the free will 
of district voters - no matter how overwhelmingly expressed - is 
never the end of the story.

Congressional Republicans believe they have successfully nullified 
the law. But officials here, seizing on a single word in the 
congressional legislation designed to scuttle the policy, beg to 
differ, setting up one of the most closely watched collisions between 
the two Washingtons in years.

A few weeks after the marijuana ballot initiative passed, House 
Republicans inserted a last-minute provision into a large federal 
spending bill prohibiting the city, which is overwhelmingly 
Democratic, from spending tax dollars to enact that initiative.

Usually that is the last word. But district officials believe they 
have identified a loophole in the provision's language. The marijuana 
law, lawyers here argue, had already been enacted and certified by 
the Board of Elections before Congress passed the spending bill, so 
there was no "enacting" for the House to prevent.

"The issue becomes: What does enactment mean?" said David Zvenyach 
the city's general counsel. Like other officials here, he believes 
that the city got ahead of Congress in enacting its law, which it 
intends to start carrying out this spring.

"Their language was either careless or hasty," said Eleanor Holmes 
Norton, a Democrat and the district's nonvoting delegate to the 
House. "If you are working on an amendment to an appropriation bill, 
you better be really careful. They say we shan't enact. Well, we 
don't have to enact anything."

Under federal law, when the District Council passes legislation or 
voters pass a measure in a referendum, the city must submit it to 
Congress for the final O.K. Formal disapproval of a law is rare and 
somewhat involved; when Congress wants to influence city affairs, it 
tends to do so through amendments to unrelated legislation like the 
spending bill.

A formal disapproval would require a joint congressional resolution 
signed by the president, something that has happened only three times 
since the city was granted home rule in 1973. Congress has until 
March to officially disapprove the city's marijuana law; if it 
declines, according to officials here, they will consider the law on the books.

 From the point of view of House Republicans, formal disapproval is 
not needed, because Congress has already spoken. "We feel that we 
have disposed of this issue," said Representative Jason Chaffetz of 
Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which controls a 
vast array of the city's affairs. "We passed a bill, it was signed 
into law, and the congressional intent was clear."

Mr. Chaffetz, a spirited defender of states' rights, said he saw the 
issue differently from those supporting the will of local government. 
"Washington, D.C., is not a state," he said, adding, "I just don't 
think that Washington, D.C., should be a haven for smoking pot."

While Washington is often out front on progressive policy 
initiatives, it is not the leader on marijuana. Colorado, Washington 
State, Oregon and Alaska have passed laws legalizing its recreational 
use, and more than 20 states allow marijuana use for medical 
purposes. This city, like many states, has also decriminalized 
possession of low amounts of the drug, treating it as a civil 
infraction. The legalization measure imposed a two-ounce limit for 
personal use - similar to that in other states, but less than 
Oregon's eight-ounce limit.

The District of Columbia law does not permit retail sales, but allows 
home cultivation.

"That's important," said Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt 
University and an expert on drug laws. "That is consistent with 
conservative norms because it is about privacy and autonomy over your 
own house. But it is important to recognize that it is hard to 
control home cultivation."

Further, while some Republicans have argued that the district measure 
runs afoul of federal drug laws, states are not required under the 
Constitution to enforce those laws, which is the basis of state 
decriminalization statutes.

Even if Washington goes forward with its new law, Congress has other 
means for peeling it back. Through policy riders, it has stopped a 
needle-exchange program intended to limit the spread of AIDS among 
heroin users and prevented the district from using its own money to 
help fund abortions for poor women, among other things.

"This is a rare victory, and it may be a temporary one," Ms. Norton 
said of the discovery of the loophole.

Or, there is always a lawsuit to file.

"My guess is if the Council tries to move forward that some district 
resident who opposed marijuana legalization will sue and the federal 
courts will then decide," said Garry Young, the director of the 
George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

But while congressional Republicans are waiting to see what the 
district does, Ms. Norton and other elected officials here are pretty 
much daring them to move next. "If the Republicans think they can 
change this, let them try it," she said. "They don't want to deal 
with this. The wave is in our favor. Four states have done major 
marijuana reform."

The city's new Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, seems equally poised 
to defend the voters' prerogative. "Our goal is to ensure that the 
voices of D.C. voters are heard," her spokesman, Michael Czin, said 
in an email. "We are working to implement the initiative in a 
thoughtful, responsible way."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom