Marijuana legalization off to messy start in Washington

At 12:01 a.m., the U.S. capital became the latest jurisdiction to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Or did it? Congress and Washington, D.C.'s, city hall are entangled in a battle over the validity of the law and federal lawmakers are warning the mayor not to go ahead with it.

Congress has tried to block the U.S. capital from legalizing marijuana

Melvin Clay of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign held a sign urging voters in the U.S. capital to legalize marijuana on election day on Nov. 4, 2014. The measure passed but Congress, which has control over local laws, is trying to block it. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

At 12:01 a.m., the U.S. capital became the latest jurisdiction to allow its residents to possess small amounts of marijuana, but a battle with Congress has set up a perplexing pot dilemma: people will be allowed to smoke it, but where can they buy it?

Washington, D.C., residents voted in November in favour of Initiative 71, to allow those 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to six plants (three maturing at a time) in one's home. It also allows someone to give — but not sell — up to one ounce to someone else.

Legalization advocates jumped for joy when the measure passed, but the celebration was short-lived. Congress stepped in to block it. D.C. isn't a state and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have the power to reject whatever city council passes. That's what they did with marijuana legalization.

Congress passed a budget bill in December that contained a line in it forbidding D.C. from using any funds to enact laws or regulations that legalize the possession, use or distribution of marijuana.

Marijuana and civil liberties advocates were outraged that Congress would interfere with the democratic process and deny something that a clear majority of voters supported. But legalization opponents on the Hill had no qualms about exercising Congress's authority over D.C.
Under D.C.'s new law, adults can have up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to six plants at home. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

"I respect the people who live here and most everything passes through without a problem, but the idea that this is going to be a haven for pot smoking, I can't support that," Congressman Jason Chaffetz said on CNN earlier this month.

Chaffetz chairs the House oversight committee which deals with matters related to D.C. 

When D.C.'s council passes a law it goes to Congress for a 30-day review period. Unless Congress passes a joint disapproval motion, the law goes ahead. The review period of Initiative 71 is up on Wednesday. Chaffetz has said there are no plans to pass a disapproval motion, because in his mind, Congress has already prevented the law from being implemented through the budget bill.

Congress could take legal action

Members of city council don't see it that way. They believe Initiative 71 was already enacted before that budget bill was passed. They are good to go when it comes to the new possession law, in their opinion. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser spoke on Tuesday about the law coming into effect and emphasized that it still remains illegal to use marijuana in public. "Home use. Home grown," is the tag line she and the police chief are using in their public awareness campaign.

The standoff between city council and Congress could lead to a faceoff in court if Congress decides to take legal action against the city. Chaffetz sent a letter to Bowser Tuesday warning that if council goes ahead with legalization on Thursday, it will be doing so "in knowing and wilful violation of the law."

He has requested documents and other details from the city related to the implementation of Initiative 71 by March 10.

Stakeholders in D.C. are watching closely. "I don't know what might happen, it's kind of up in the air," said Robert Capecchi, of the Marijuana Policy Project.

What does appear certain, however, is that D.C. will not be following in the footsteps of Washington state and Colorado in setting up a legal market for the sale of marijuana. City officials intended on doing that but the budget bill does indicate funds can't be spent to develop regulations.

The effort is stalled, which means there will be no dispensaries, marijuana bakeries or other storefront businesses for recreational pot opening any time soon. (Medical marijuana is already legal.)
Pre-rolled marijuana joints are pictured at the Sea of Green Farms in Washington state last year. The city of Washington, in D.C., will not be allowed to set up a similar retail market the way Washington state did, because of Congress. (Jason Redmond /Reuters)

People will be able to legally use marijuana — barring any successful action by Congress — but they may have trouble getting it if they don't grow it themselves.

The illegal market "is operating and will continue to operate unless and until we are able to put in place a legal market for people to buy it from," Capecchi said.

"People need to educate themselves," he said, and behave "responsibility and appropriately" in terms of what is legal and what is not.

Cannabis expo this weekend

Budding entrepreneurs who want to get into the marijuana business in Washington are still gearing up, however, for the day when sales might be legal.

This weekend in the capital there is a cannabis expo, job fair and "cannabis academy" organized by a company called ComfyTree. Attendees can meet representatives of existing marijuana-related companies, learn how to get into the business themselves, and learn how to grow pot.

Tiffany Bowden, the company's co-founder, said policy experts will be there to explain D.C.'s potentially confusing marijuana landscape. In the absence of a legal market, it's also a good opportunity for people to learn how to grow marijuana at home since that will be a primary way of obtaining it. She also suspects there will be more social club models popping up in D.C. as a result of how legalization is playing out in the capital.

"Entrepreneurs are extremely creative individuals," she said, adding that the barriers erected by Congress will not stop them. "All that means is that there isn't going to be the traditional dispensary model or cultivation model."

Bowden is hopeful that Congress will stop getting in the way of what D.C. residents voted for in November.

"I think they will be making a huge mistake if they find some way to silence voters right there in the nation's capital," she said. "I think it would send a poor signal to citizens not just about marijuana, but that their vote does not matter. I don't think that they want that."


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