Pubdate: Tue, 10 Feb 2015
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Times, LLC.
Author: Andrea Noble


AG Says Hearing Might Violate Congressional Ban

The D.C. Council on Monday downgraded the scope of a hearing on 
regulating marijuana sales to avoid legal concerns raised by the 
city's attorney general - a move emblematic of the hurdles 
congressional oversight has created for the District in its quest to 
legalize pot.

Over the weekend, the D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine alerted 
council members that holding a hearing on the proposal would violate 
a congressional ban on spending money to enact legislation that 
loosens drug laws in the city. Warned that improper action could earn 
officials and staff jail time or $5,000 fines, council committees 
instead held an informal roundtable discussion to enable dozens of 
witnesses assembled Monday to testify on the issue.

The wrangling over the hearing is just one of a series of potential 
problems the city has encountered as it has tried to move forward 
with marijuana legalization following voters' approval of Initiative 
71 in November.

"The elephant in the room is Congress," said D.C. Council Chairman 
Phil Mendelson. "To the extent that there is some question about what 
we are doing, it's Congress that is creating this problem, and we are 
doing our best to understand and to do what we can."

Congress passed a spending bill in December that blocks the District 
from spending any money - federal or local tax dollars - to enact 
legislation that would legalize or reduce penalties associated with 
the recreational use of marijuana or any other Schedule 1 drug. City 
lawmakers have taken the legal stance that Initiative 71 was 
self-executing and took effect when voters approved it - well ahead 
of the adoption of Congress' spending bill.

But Initiative 71, passed by 70 percent of D.C. voters, does not set 
up a regulatory scheme for the sale and taxation of marijuana. In 
holding Monday's hearing, local lawmakers tried to move forward 
supplemental legislation that would do so.

In his letter to the council members, Mr. Racine said that although 
he supports the effort, he believes the council would violate the 
federal Anti-Deficiency Act - which prohibits the D.C. government 
from spending money without prior approval from Congress - by holding 
a hearing on the bill.

"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," Mr. Racine wrote in the letter. "Any such hearings, from 
my view, would violate federal civil and criminal code provisions."

Mr. Racine's analysis is contrary to that of the council's chief 
attorney, David Zvenyach, who argued that the city would be 
prohibited only from holding a second official reading of the bill 
and taking a final vote on the proposal.

Witnesses who testified in favor of the proposal gave suggestions to 
improve the law, with some advocating for the council to do away with 
the 2-ounce limit on the amount of pot a person could legally possess 
under the law and others suggesting proceeds from marijuana sales go 
to communities harmed by past drug wars.

Others voiced opposition to legalization, worried about the harm that 
would come from the use of the drug by children.

Initiative 71, which is projected to become law by the end of 
February, makes it legal to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and 
for D.C. residents to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes.

Witnesses at Monday's hearing expressed disappointment with the legal 
quagmire the District is facing over the future of marijuana 
legalization, with many urging lawmakers to take a more confrontational stance.

"Let's force Congress' hand an openly defy them. You all are simply 
doing your jobs," said D.C. resident Josh Burch. "I urge you to press 
forward and don't back down."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom