DC Defies Congress on Marijuana


When residents of Washington, D.C., legalized recreational marijuana with Initiative 71, they knew there was going to be trouble. Congress has a notorious habit of meddling in the District’s affairs. With an issue as controversial as recreational marijuana, vultures are bound to appear.

As soon as the measure was passed, Rep. Andy Harris launched efforts to undo it. The culmination of Harris’ work was a rider in the 2015 budget which barred D.C. from using any of its money to enact marijuana legalization.

However, District officials argue that doesn’t matter. As ballot initiatives in D.C. have the same weight as an act of the council, all ratified ballot initiatives are considered “enacted” as soon as the election is certified. Since the election was certified before the 2015 budget was passed, Harris’ rider has no effect.

Even if Congress wanted to split hairs over the matter, the rider would still only have an effect on the next fiscal year. The Council of the District of Columbia can still use reserve funds to “enact” the law.

In what some would call a defiant move, D.C. has moved forward with marijuana legalization and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has sent the marijuana initiative to Capitol Hill where Congress has a 30-day window to pass or reject it.

This move is made despite warnings from Congressional representatives, such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who told The Washington Post that any attempt to move forward with marijuana legalization would be “ill-advised and fruitless.”

The warning attempts may ultimately prove fruitless. Both houses of Congress and the President would have to sign off on blocking the measure and although the Republicans hold both houses of Congress, marijuana legalization is likely an issue bi-partisan enough to thwart efforts against it. Plus, legislators may be willing to compromise now that the budget is behind them and the government shutdown no longer looms overhead.

If Congress lets the initiative stand, D.C. will still have the problem of how to deal with an unregulated marijuana market. The black market would flourish in a system without regulations. It’s only a matter of time until such regulatory issues need solving. For now, marijuana in the District may have an uncertain fate, but prohibitionists will have difficulty building a coalition to dismiss legalization efforts.

William Sumner, a freelance writer and marijuana journalist, was a staff writer for MJINews from May 2014 through February 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @W_Sumner.

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