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D.C. Stands Up to Congress on Marijuana Legalization (Updated)

Updated 5:41 p.m. | As of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the District of Columbia will legalize marijuana, despite warnings from two congressional Republicans that doing so would break the law and could lead to possible prison time for D.C. officials.  

"Our government is prepared to implement and enforce Initiative 71 in the District of Columbia,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a briefing Wednesday, where D.C. officials presented a united front against congressional opposition. Bowser was joined by District Attorney General Karl Racine, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier and eight members of the D.C. Council, including Chairman Phil Mendelson.

Mayor Muriel Bowser

Bowser said D.C. will move forward with legalization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

"We would encourage the Congress to not be so concerned about overturning what 7 out of 10 voters said should be the law in the District of Columbia,” Bowser later added.  

The news conference comes after House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., sent a letter to Bowser warning her that moving forward with legalization would be “in knowing and willful violation of the law.”  

The lawmakers, whose committees have jurisdiction over D.C., argued that allowing legalization to take effect would violate a provision attached to the year-end spending package that barred D.C. from using federal and local funds to enact policies to reduce penalties or legalize marijuana.  

District officials argue that the legalization initiative, which was approved by 70 percent of D.C. voters, was enacted before the spending package was signed into law, meaning it took effect. The theory was espoused by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who on Wednesday said the Republicans' charges that implementation was illegal constituted "unnecessarily hostile congressional reactions.”  

Top House Democrats also came to the District's defense Wednesday.  

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she supports the District of Columbia's efforts to move forward with marijuana legalization.  

“I concur with the legal analysis of the District of Columbia and other congressional leaders that the Omnibus spending bill passed in December does not repeal or block the implementation of this initiative," Pelosi said in a statement. “It is very troubling that Republicans would threaten elected District officials for implementing the measure resoundingly passed by the District of Columbia’s voters."  

Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr., of Michigan; Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York; Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government ranking member José E. Serrano of New York; and Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland issued a joint statement shortly before the mayor's news conference.  

"The District of Columbia has the legal authority to implement Initiative 71 on Thursday," they said. "Rather than threatening elected District officials with prison time for implementing the will of the voters, Republicans should focus on more pressing matters, such as the dysfunctional division within their own party that is now threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security in a matter of days.”  

Defying the GOP lawmakers’ warnings, D.C. will move forward with the initiative, and officials have been working to educate law enforcement and the public about what legalization means for D.C.  

At a breakfast with the D.C. Council Tuesday morning, Bowser and Lanier laid out their implementation plan. Bowser said her administration is putting together an implementation task force, led by Lanier and Dr. LaQuandra S. Nesbitt, director of D.C. Department of Health.  

Lanier said officers have been trained in various scenarios and the adjustment will be similar to when the District decriminalized marijuana in 2014. The important element, Lanier stressed, is educating the public on the new law.  

“From the police department side, moving through decriminalization and now to the legalization of the small amounts, it’s not that different,” Lanier said. “The only confusion really is for the public, and trying to make sure that the public is well-educated in the places where they can and can’t possess and use marijuana.”  

On Tuesday, Bowser’s office kicked off that public education campaign, releasing a fact sheet , frequently asked questions and an infographic to explain the initiative.  

The mantra officials hope the public remembers is “Home grow; home use.” In other words, pot can legally be grown in the home and used in the home, and nowhere else. While it is illegal to use marijuana in a public space, one can possess marijuana around the city. But, since marijuana is illegal under federal law, it will be illegal to posses it on federal land, such as the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol and a number of traffic circles.  

Lanier said the MPD has been coordinating with the Capitol Police in anticipation of the law taking effect Thursday. The USCP patrols neighborhoods around the Capitol in addition to the grounds, but Lanier said the Capitol Police, and other federal law enforcement agencies, will not be making arrests for marijuana possession outside of federal property.  

"The federal agencies will only enforce on federal land. They’re not going to enforce on public space,” she said. "All of our federal partners are aware of how we’re rolling out the initiative."  

Despite D.C. officials' insistence that they will implement the initiative, the letter sent by Chaffetz and Meadows Wednesday indicates the battle over marijuana legalization in D.C. is far from over.  

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