Pubdate: Tue, 10 Feb 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis


City Attorney General Saw Risk of Violating Congressional Ban

The D.C. Council abandoned plans to hold a hearing on how to tax and 
regulate marijuana Monday after the District's new attorney general 
warned that it could subject city lawmakers and their staff members 
to fines and even jail time.

The move amounted to a setback for advocates of marijuana 
legalization and highlighted the difficulties the District is likely 
to face as it tries to implement Initiative 71, the ballot measure 
approved overwhelmingly by voters in November.

The hearing was scuttled even though business leaders who had 
launched sales of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state had 
traveled to the District to discuss a proposed bill to fully legalize 
marijuana in the nation's capital.

The city's new attorney general, Karl A. Racine, warned the D.C. 
Council not to hold the planned hearing Monday. Doing so, Racine said 
in a letter to the council, would violate a spending prohibition 
placed on the city by Congress barring it from setting up a 
regulatory scheme for sales of the plant.

Racine said holding a hearing could expose lawmakers and their staff 
members who would help conduct the hearing to potential federal fines 
of up to $5,000 each and jail terms of two years.

As the meeting was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., D.C. Council 
Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) instead met with the heads of three 
committees who were scheduled to participate in the hearing. They 
emerged saying they would cancel the hearing on the bill and ask the 
dozens of assembled witnesses to participate in an informal 
roundtable discussion on the topic so as not to risk contempt of Congress.

Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who presided over most 
of the four-hour meeting that followed, blasted the decision as a bad 
precedent, especially since the council's own attorney had argued 
that lawmakers could proceed without risking the wrath of Congress.

"Holding hearings, that's what we do," Orange said. "If we can't hold 
a hearing, then we need to pack up and go home."

The episode further intertwined the fate of the District's 
voter-approved measure to legalize marijuana with its long-stymied 
struggle for statehood.

Josh Burch, co-founder of a group called Neighbors United for D.C. 
Statehood, said near the start of the hearing that he was less 
engaged on the issue of marijuana legalization than on the issue of 
D.C. autonomy, the fact that D.C. lawmakers were not free to hold a 
hearing and the lack of "fairness, equality and the basic tenets of 
democracy that don't apply to the District."

"Congress has imposed its will on the District for too long," Burch 
said. "We the citizens and elected leaders have capitulated. The time 
for capitulation must end and the time for confrontation is upon us."

Confrontation of one form or another is probably what's coming next.

D.C. voters in November overwhelmingly approved legalizing marijuana, 
but Congress in December moved to block the District from allowing 
legal sales. The fate of the ballot measure remains in limbo, with 
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) saying that it was "self-enacting" and the 
city will begin enforcing it as law as early as late this month. 
Republicans in Congress say the initiative was blocked.

The initiative legalizes possession of up to two ounces of the plant 
and home cultivation of up to three mature plants per adult. But the 
initiative left up to D.C. lawmakers the complicated task of setting 
up a system for legal sales and taxation of the plant.

The move by Congress clearly blocked the city from enacting any new 
laws that weaken enforcement of federal drug laws before the end of 
the federal budget year in September. But some D.C. lawmakers pressed 
for the city to defy Congress. At a minimum, they said, the council 
should do everything up to enacting a system to allow for pot sales, 
namely holding the hearings and drafting the law for whenever 
Congress allows it.

Last month, D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) and three 
others introduced a measure for the council to move forward with 
establishing a comprehensive system for licensing and regulating the 
cultivation, manufacture and legal retail sale of marijuana and 
marijuana products in the District.

Grosso's bill included plans for collecting licensing fees, imposing 
taxes and designating the city's Alcoholic Beverage Regulation 
Administration as the regulatory agency for city marijuana sales.

In the letter to the council, Racine warned that Monday's hearing 
would put city officials and even staffers in violation of the 
federal Anti-Deficiency Act, which can expose lawmakers and 
government bureaucrats to penalties for spending tax money in ways 
prohibited by Congress. He cited a small change, or rider, that 
Congress made in a $1 trillion spending package after the election in 
November as the problem for the council.

"The issue here is not whether Initiative 71, which was, in our view, 
enacted before the 2015 Appropriations Act became effective, but, 
rather, whether the hearing on this bill - which was not enacted by 
the time the rider took effect - would violate the rider. We believe 
it would," Racine wrote.

"I reluctantly conclude that it would be unlawful to do so 
notwithstanding my full support of the sentiments behind your desire 
to conduct this hearing," Racine wrote.

Racine urged the council to either delay the hearing until after 
September or change the structure of Monday's hearing to an 
informational hearing, not frame it around possible passage of a District law.

David Zvenyach, the D.C. Council's chief attorney, replied to Racine 
on Saturday, saying he disagreed with the attorney general's 
interpretation and said council members should move forward if they wish.

The council, however, chose to follow Racine's warning.

Grosso said he was warned two weeks ago by Racine's office not to 
introduce the measure because it could be in violation of the 
congressional spending restriction. He said he was disappointed the 
council chairmen involved Monday chose to not go forward.

In the informational hearing, Grosso addressed the issue indirectly, 
saying he wanted to thank President Obama's new drug czar Michael 
Botticelli for saying last week that D.C. should have the right to 
set its own drug laws, like a state.

"That was courageous," Grosso said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom