D.C. lawmakers held steadfast that marijuana legalization laws would go into effect Thursday, despite threats from two House Republicans that doing so would put local government employees at risk of jail time.
Local officials were put on notice late Tuesday in a letter from Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz saying that Congress is investigating whether the city violated federal law by spending money to implement a voter-approved initiative to legalize the possession and home cultivation of marijuana.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded Wednesday, saying the District is well within its legal right to implement the laws, which were set to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, and that she doesn’t believe the implementation of Initiative 71 has cost the District any money.
“We believe we’re on very strong legal ground,” said Ms. Bowser, a Democrat who was joined at a Wednesday news conference at the John A. Wilson Building by eight D.C. Council members, the city’s police chief and attorney general.
Four House Democrats — Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, Nita Lowey and Jose Serrano of New York, and John Conyers of Michigan — also sided with the District, noting in a joint statement that the city “has legal authority to implement Initiative 71.”
Federal and local lawmakers have been sparring for months over whether the ballot measure, approved by 70 percent of D.C. voters in November, can legally take effect.
“If you decide to move forward tomorrow with the legalization of marijuana in the District, you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law,” wrote Mr. Chaffetz and Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, who sit on committees with oversight of the District.
Initiative 71 will make it legal for residents 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for recreational use, grow up to six marijuana plants inside a D.C. residence and transfer up to an ounce of marijuana to others. Regulation of the sale of marijuana is a task left up to city lawmakers, who thus far have been unable to enact any legislation due to the prohibitions enacted by Congress.
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 is self-executing and took effect after the D.C. Board of Elections certified the results — well ahead of the adoption of Congress’ spending bill. Thursday marks the end of the 30-day congressional review period for Initiative 71, a process required of all D.C. legislation before becoming law.
“We do disagree on a matter of law, and we think there are perfectly reasonable ways to resolve those things without us threatening him, nor he us,” Ms. Bowser said of Mr. Chaffetz’ warning. “Bullying the District of Columbia is not what his constituents expect, nor do ours.”
By allowing the law to take effect, Mr. Chaffetz and Mr. Meadows said that D.C. officials will be in violation of the federal Anti-Deficiency Act, which stipulates that the District cannot spend money that has not been appropriated by Congress.
Their letter asks Ms. Bowser to provide Congress with the names of any city employees who aided in “any action related to the enactment of Initiative 71.” It also asks for an accounting of any money the District spent on enacting the law.
Ms. Bowser said Wednesday the city intends “to be cooperative” with the request, but she later said she does not believe implementation of the law “has a cost” — noting that handouts police will use to explain Initiative 71 are a byproduct of the need to educate residents about city laws.
No one has ever been convicted of violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office regularly investigates violation claims. Conviction of a violation of the act could carry jail time or fines. Members of Congress have suggested that the authority to take further action on the matter now lies with the Justice Department.
Spokespeople for both U.S. Attorney for the District Ronald C. Machen Jr. and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. declined to comment Wednesday.
D.C. Council members active in loosening the city’s marijuana laws said they were not concerned, believing Mr. Holder will not pursue such charges against city officials.
“That would be his prerogative whether or not he wanted to proceed down that path,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso, at-large independent. “We assume he won’t, given the fact that he’s been in dialogue with us and his office with the city all along. So they knew what we were up to all along.”
Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, pointed to efforts the city has taken to act within accordance of the current constraints adopted by Congress, citing the downgrading of a recent hearing on the taxation and regulation of marijuana sales. Earlier this month, the council held a roundtable discussion on the marijuana laws rather than an official hearing on proposed legislation after the city’s attorney general warned that doing so could run afoul of the Anti-Deficiency Act.
“We took the course of action that both the council’s general counsel and the attorney general said was prudent and legal,” Mr. McDuffie said. “Any effort on behalf of Congressman Chaffetz or anybody else on the Hill to suggest that we’re violating the law is simply overreaching at this point.”