Showdown Over Weed: Congress Warns DC Mayor That Legalizing Pot is Illegal

By Barbara Hollingsworth | February 25, 2015 | 2:51pm EST


D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (AP photo)

( – Two Republican congressmen have warned District of Columbia (DC) Mayor Muriel Bowser that she will be in “willful violation” of federal law if she allows a voter-approved measure to legalize marijuana to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday as planned.

“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,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) warned Bowser in a February 24 letter.

(See Letter-to-Mayor-Bowser-022415.pdf)

“We strongly suggest you reconsider your position,” the letter stated, adding that “it would be unprecedented for the District to take actions proscribed by legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President."

The letter also asked Bowser to turn over by March 10th a list of any D.C. employees “who participated in any way in any action related to the enactment” of the city’s pot decriminalization legislation, as well as “any employee who declined to participate.”

The congressmen also asked her for an accounting of any funds spent on the ballot measure, including transmitting it to Congress. Under the Anti-Deficiency Act, city officials could be criminally prosecuted for spending money that was not appropriated.

"If they are under any illusion that this would be legal, they are wrong. And there are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We're not playing a little game here, Chaffetz said in a Tuesday interview with the Washington Post.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) (AP Photo)

On Wednesday, Chaffetz reportedly declined to say what action the House would take if the newly elected mayor did not back down.

Bowser is unlikely to do so.

“D.C. residents spoke loud and clear last November when they adopted Initiative 71 to legalize small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia,” the mayor told members of the D.C. Council Tuesday morning. “And we of course stand together in wanting to enforce the will of the people by implementing the initiative in a safe, fair and transparent way.”

But Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), the District’s non-voting representative in the House who supports legalization, acknowledged there are practical problems with the city’s new pot law. “What you’re going to have on Feb. 26 is an anomaly. You can possess a small amount…but you can only get it, I guess, illegally,” she said.

A Feb. 24 press release from Bowser’s office explained that under the new D.C. law, pot use is limited to private property and cannot be sold or smoked on federal property or in any public place, including restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The press release did not mention that all laws passed by the District must first be approved by Congress before they go into effect.

On Nov. 4, 2014, 64.8 percent of District voters approved Initiative 71, which “make[s] it lawful under District of Columbia law for a person 21 years of age or older to:

  • possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use;
  • grow no more than six cannabis plants with 3 or fewer being mature, flowering plants, within the person’s principal residence;
  • transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older; and
  • use or sell drug paraphernalia for the use, growing, or processing of marijuana or cannabis.”

However, the District was expressly prohibited from legalizing marijuana under a deal reached in December between Senate Democrats, led by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and House Republicans to pass the $1.1 trillion Continuing Resolution that funds the federal government until September.

A rider attached to the massive spending bill prohibits any federal or local funds from being used to “enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance,” which includes marijuana. President Obama signed the bill on Dec. 16, 2014.

“I would be at a loss to explain why Democrats would agree to block D.C. marijuana legislation on their watch,” Rep. Holmes-Norton said at the time. “Republicans will control Congress in less than a month. I don’t know why Democrats would give them a head start in interfering with the District’s local laws.”

On January 13, District Council President Phil Mendelson (D) sent the ballot measure to Congress for a 30-day review as required by law, since Congress has oversight over the federal city’s laws and finances.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), a physician and outspoken opponent of the legalization of marijuana who introduced the amendment to the appropriations bill, said that “despite attempts to misconstrue the language of the omnibus bill, it is clear that if D.C. chooses to proceed with the enactment of marijuana legislation, they will be in violation of the law.”

Related: Evidence: Michael Brown Was High on Pot and Carrying a Bag of It

Related: Despite Warnings, District of Columbia On Track to Become Nation’s Pot Capital

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