Day one of the standoff between the District of Columbia and Congress over marijuana legalization in D.C. kicked off Tuesday, as the initiative legalizing possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana was transmitted to Congress for review.
The office of the secretary to the D.C. Council confirmed Tuesday that the initiative was sent to Congress. Under the Home Rule Act, Congress has 30 days to review District laws, during which time Congress can reject the law by passing a joint resolution of disapproval. But, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Congress does not have to respond since the initiative was already blocked by Congress.
“We still believe the prohibition on the implementation is crystal clear in the law,” Chaffetz said outside the House floor Tuesday, referring to the year-end spending package that included an amendment targeting marijuana legalization in D.C.
“Oh they can send us paperwork," Chaffetz said. "That doesn’t mean that the law’s changed. The law is already in place.”
Asked if Congress would consider a joint resolution of disapproval, which must be passed by both chambers and signed by the president, and Chaffetz responded, "No."
But some D.C. officials are countering that if the initiative goes through a 30-day review without any response by Congress, the initiative, passed by 70 percent of D.C. voters in November, will be able to take effect.
“The District’s examination agrees with our analysis that the initiative was enacted when voters approved it and will take effect at the end of the 30-day congressional review period,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. said in a statement to CQ Roll Call Tuesday.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson also said the initiative will become law if it passes the congressional review period.
“I happen to believe that the initiative was enacted so I think there’s no question that after the 30-day review it will be law,” Mendelson said in a Tuesday phone interview. He said he would be keeping an eye on Congress after the initiative is transmitted, as with any piece of legislation.
"Ordinarily what we do is we just pay attention to two things," said Mendelson. "One: the clock. And the other is whether there is any talk or action in Congress to override the legislation. So that’s what we will do with regard to the initiative”
But according to Chaffetz, Congress is not planning any response, since, in his view, the law already states the initiative cannot be implemented.
However, this disagreement could create an uncertain environment with regard to marijuana possession in D.C., with members of Congress arguing the initiative cannot go forward, and District officials arguing it can.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who sponsored the original amendment blocking marijuana legalization, also said the law was clear that the District could not move forward with the initiative, and suggested litigation was on the horizon. "I guess we're in for a legal battle," said Harris. "I mean, if the D.C. Council takes an illegal action and then attempts to do regulation based on illegal action, I guess that's the only solution."
The D.C. Attorney General's office has not returned request for comment on how the District will respond if Congress does not address the initiative during the review process.
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