A sign promoting the DC Cannabis Campaign's marijuana legalization initiative is displayed Nov. 4, 2014 in northwest Washington D.C. (Allison Shelley, Getty Images)

D.C. Council ups ante in legalization fight; Congress on the clock

The District of Columbia defied its new Republican overseers in Congress on Tuesday, challenging the House and Senate to either block or let stand a voter-approved ballot measure to legalize marijuana in the nation’s capital.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent the voter-approved measure to Capitol Hill, starting the clock on a 30-day review that Congress has invoked only three times in 40 years to quash a local D.C. law.

If Congress and President Obama do not act to block it, the ballot measure permitting possession of up to two ounces and home cultivation of pot could become law in the District as early as March.

Realistically, however, Tuesday’s move seemed destined to launch a rocky year of legal battles and to thrust a final decision on pot legalization in the city into the hands of federal courts.

DC’s election aftermath: Get caught up on the District of Columbia’s fight with Congress over voter-approved marijuana legalization

Mendelson took the provocative step of sending the marijuana measure to Congress despite a federal spending bill passed last month and signed by the president that explicitly forbade the District from enacting new laws that reduce penalties for drug possession.

Conservative House Republicans boasted at the time that the paragraph tucked into the 900-page, $1 trillion spending bill halted the city from following Colorado and Washington state into a closely watched experiment to legalize marijuana.

“That issue has come and gone,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz last month. The Utah Republican is the new chairman of the powerful committee with oversight of D.C. issues and is an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization. In a December interview, he warned that any attempt by the District to move forward on legalization would be “ill-advised and fruitless.”

But Mendelson — backed by new D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — vowed to carry out the will of the seven in 10 D.C. voters who supported Initiative 71, the legalization measure.

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Mendelson, Bowser and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting House member, also advanced a legal basis for pressing their case: The spending bill only prohibited the District from using taxpayer funds to “enact” new laws that loosen drug restrictions.

Under D.C. law, however, ballot measures are considered enacted once voters have spoken and the election results are certified. The city’s Nov. 4 election results were certified on Dec. 3, a week before Congress passed the spending bill that included the restriction on any new laws.

In letters dated Tuesday and addressed to Vice President Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Mendelson noted the dates, saying the pot law was a done deal before the federal spending bill was passed.

In an interview this week, Mendelson downplayed the issue, saying there was “nothing special” about transmitting the measure despite warnings from Republicans. He also stressed that he wasn’t seeking a confrontation with Congress.

“I have no choice,” Mendelson said, “the law says that I must transmit the measure. That is all I am doing.”

The business-as-usual stance is key because in 1998 Congress took a similar approach to hamstring city spending of taxpayer funds to suspend a voter-approved ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana. Once Congress acted, D.C. elections officials refused to spend even $1.64 of taxpayer funds that year to finish counting ballots, fearing retribution from Congress. The city’s medical marijuana law ultimately stalled for a decade.

Two views on Election 2014

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To underscore that the District was making no special expenditure this week to finish implementing Initiative 71, Mendelson did nothing special to draw attention to Tuesday’s effort to get the measure to Congress. Legislative staffers bundled it in manila envelopes with 20 other acts of the D.C. Council that were due before Congress for review. It also did not alter the monthly schedule to send the package to Congress. Legislative staffers said they could not single out any particular cost for the envelope, printing or other packaging of the ballot measure.

District officials received signed confirmation from both the House and Senate that they had accepted the ballot measure for review just after 4:20 p.m.