The District of Columbia Council were nearly burned at the stake in front of Capitol Hill after attempting to hold a hearing to discuss the legalization of retail marijuana. Ever since District voters approved Initiative 71 in last November’s general election, the council, along with a myriad of other city officials, have been foaming at the mouth over the possibility of selling weed in the backyard of the White House. However, just days before a major debate was to be conducted over the issue, the council received a letter from newly-elected Attorney General Karl Racine indicating that if they did, in fact, move forward with the meeting, all participating parties would be subject to federal prosecution. As you can imagine, the threat of Uncle Sam’s furious wrath took councilmembers by surprise — after all they were just opening the floor for a discussion.
The culprit behind this potential shakedown is a federal spending bill passed at the end of 2014, which has Representative Andy Harris’ anti-pot rider attached to it, which makes it illegal to use local and federal funds to “enact” legislation to legalize marijuana in the nation’s capital. It seems that while Racine supports the council in their battle against the congressional powers to ensure Initiative 71 is allowed to pass, in spite of the rider, he would be forced to unleash the dogs on the local lawmakers if they so much as turned on a light in the name of furthering the legalization of marijuana.
Councilman David Grosso raised a middle finger to Congress and its Omnibus spending bill when he announced in U.S. News and World Report that he had “quietly” submitted a proposal to the D.C. Council aimed at legalizing a cannabis industry where the president sleeps. With confidence, Grosso told reporters that the District was on its way to a street rumble with Congress and they intended to rub their faces in the dirt.
“I think we’re on the path to seeing this bill enacted,” he said. “By moving this bill forward, we’re directly confronting Congress.”
The councilman then went on to explain that it was the responsibility of District lawmakers to retaliate against the beasts gnawing at the city’s right to enact laws supported by the people.
“This is a golden opportunity to do direct civil disobedience,” said Grosso, “because if Congress is saying, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ and we do it, it challenges them to do what they think they have to do, unlike going out in the street and blocking traffic, where it’s an indirect message to the cause you’re trying to move forward.”
The D.C. Council has learned that it will not have the opportunity to show Congress their rebellious side because Racine has been put in the position to infiltrate the cavalry before it attacks. In the memo sent to the Honorable Vincent Orange, Chairman of the Committee on Business Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Racine explains that he can’t allow the council to proceed with a hearing in which the result is ultimately the legalization of marijuana because Harris’ rider makes it a federal offense. Racine said that holding a hearing to explore the issue would “involve the expenditure of local funds to enact a measure legalizing marijuana,” and therefore it was direct violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, punishable with a fine of up to $5,000 and a two-year prison term.
Of course, the District’s will to have a cockfight with Congress was outmatched by their fear of incarceration, so Council Chairman Phil Mendelson decided to cut the power to the static and light candle instead. Although head legal counsel for the District argued the letter was not legit and could not prevent a discussion over the issue, Mendelson simply went ahead and downgraded the hearing to a roundtable discussion, which was then attended by three key members of select committees. Racine assured the council that such a meeting would be acceptable and would in no way cause trouble with Uncle Sam.
No one is certain what’s going to happen with regard to Initiative 71, which is currently undergoing a mandatory 30-day congressional review. It seems if the D.C. Council expects to enact further legislation to legalize the leaf in 2015, they are going to have to exercise a substantial amount of clever deviance to get past the gatekeeper.
Legal experts speculate the council is already tucked away in a super secret location conjuring a new plan of attack, which according to Walter Smith, executive director for the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, exists in a loophole of Harris’ rider.
Although the budget does prevent the council from spending local funds towards “enacting” new cannabis-friendly legislation, it does nothing to prevent the passing of a measure. Here is where the council has an opportunity to move forward with legislation without risking a proverbial tar-and-feathering – and all they have to conquer is the issue of funding. If they can manage to dig up some discretionary dollars, which have not been allotted for the 2016 fiscal year, there would be nothing standing in their way from using those resources to enact legislation for a cannabis trade. It’s possible that this money could be found lingering in the coffers of the 2015 fiscal budget, but this angle has not yet been confirmed.
At this point, the D.C. Council will likely wait to see the outcome of Congress’ decision on Initiative 71 before making their next move.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser recently got together with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to discuss the issue of marijuana legalization in the nation’s capital.
In an interview with Roll Call last week, she said the “residents of the District of Columbia should enjoy the rights that every other American has. And that their elected leaders and voters should pass laws that affect the residents of the District of Columbia, without intrusion by the Congress.”
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