Amid all the uncertainties surrounding the legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia, a few things are clear. Among them is that Congress has better things to do than meddle in the purely local affairs of the District. When it does interfere, it ends up making a mess of matters. Apparently, however, there are no bounds to the grandstanding of opportunistic politicians on Capitol Hill.
That District officials and employees have been threatened with jail, by no less than the chairman of a powerful congressional committee, for their good-faith efforts to follow a voter mandate is utterly inexcusable. Such a spectacle — and the fact that the District is under congressional attack for undertaking virtually the same steps as its counterparts in Colorado, Washington and, most recently, Alaska — should bring home to the rest of the country the need to redress the historic injustice of the city’s limited political powers.
At issue is a disagreement between D.C. officials and key House Republicans over the legality of Initiative 71, a measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in November to legalize possession by adults of small amounts of marijuana and allow home cultivation. City officials announced the measure would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday following the mandatory 30-day congressional review period in which it went unchallenged; House Republicans have argued that a rider attached to last year’s omnibus appropriations bill blocks implementation.
“If you decide to move forward tomorrow with the legalization of marijuana in the District, you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law,” read a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, signed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee that handles D.C. affairs. Just in case that wasn’t clear, Chaffetz said in a subsequent interview, “You can go to prison for this. We’re not playing a little game here.”
Unquestionably legal opinion differs about whether the language in the congressional rider actually prevents the implementation of the initiative. But Chaffetz’s charge that city officials are thumbing their nose at the law is completely without merit. Officials were acting on the advice of counsel, including Attorney General Karl Racine, who concluded that the rider did not prevent the initiative from taking effect. So cautious have city officials been that they canceled hearings called to examine regulation and sale of marijuana for fear of running afoul of federal law.
Therein lies more damage to the District. Issues that were not addressed by the voter initiative remain unresolved because congressional Republicans, in using the District to score political points, couldn’t care less about the consequences. Yet they dare to say it is the District that is playing games.