AG: Proposed D.C. marijuana-legalization referendum would violate federal law

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A proposed initiative to legalize possession of marijuana in the District should not be allowed on the November ballot because it violates federal law, the city’s attorney general wrote in an opinion issued to the Board of Elections.

The opinion comes ahead of a scheduled Tuesday hearing during which the elections board will decide whether the initiative passes legal muster and can be put to a vote by D.C. residents.


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In a letter sent to Board of Elections General Counsel Kenneth McGhie, Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan wrote that the initiative violates federal law because it would ban public housing facilities from stating in lease agreements that tenants can be evicted for drug-related criminal activity.

“The proposed Initiative would prohibit leases from containing such language and prohibit the District from evicting a public-housing tenant who, in violation of federal law and the lease, possessed small quantities of marijuana,” Mr. Nathan wrote.

The ballot initiative as written would make it legal to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and to grow up to six marijuana plants in one’s own home. The initiative would not make the sale of marijuana legal, nor would it allow for pot shops to set up in the city.

The passage in the initiative that has come under fire from the attorney general for violating federal law states that “no district government agency or office shall limit or refuse to provide any facility service, program or benefit to any person” based on the legalization of marijuana.

Mr. Nathan notes that the passage conflicts with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which “requires that public housing leases make ‘drug-related criminal activity’ on or off public housing premises a cause for terminating a public housing lease.”

The sponsor of the legalization initiative, Adam Eidinger, said he is working with lawyers from his group, DCMJ, to see if the questionable wording in the initiative can be changed ahead of the Tuesday hearing.

“It might just be a matter of four words that have to be changed,” Mr. Eidinger said. “I don’t want to lose our opportunity to collect signatures.”

Before the initiative can be placed on the Nov. 1 ballot, the Board of Elections must first sign off on the ballot language and the group must then collect 23,000 signatures from registered D.C. voters.

Board of Elections spokeswoman Tamara Robinson said the board would take the attorney general’s letter into account, but his disapproval is not certain death for the initiative.

“We take all comments into consideration, whether they are from the AGs office or written from D.C. residents,” Ms. Robinson said. “At times we have agreed with the attorney general’s office on certain matters and at times we don’t.”

The purpose of the Board of Elections hearing is to make sure the ballot initiative language “falls within the guidelines we have in place,” she said.

To be approved, initiatives may not appropriate city funds, violate the District’s Home Rule Charter, negate a budget act, or violate the Human Rights Act, according to the board.

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