Pot fight smolders in capital as District moves to legalize it

Pot fight smolders in capital as District moves to legalize it
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GOP members of Congress leveled threats of jail time against Washington, D.C.’s leaders Wednesday, with neither side appearing ready to back down in an intensifying battle over the District’s move to legalize marijuana.

Hours before a statute was to take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) pledged that the city’s plans to allow recreational pot use would proceed over vehement objections from Republicans, including House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz.

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Bowser, during a news conference late Wednesday, urged Chaffetz to stay “focused on doing his job,” adding that “bullying the District of Columbia is not what his constituents expect, nor do ours.”

Earlier, Chaffetz sent Bowser a letter contending that legalization would amount to a “willful violation of the law,” citing an appropriations provision meant to block any spending to implement the statute. “You can go to jail for this,” he told The Washington Post.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), perhaps the law’s most vocal opponent, said D.C.’s actions amount to a clear violation of the Antideficiency Act, a statute that prohibits federal employees from making or authorizing expenditures that are not available in appropriations.

“Everything they’re doing now expends money,” he told reporters on Wednesday, citing steps the District has taken to prepare for legalization. “There are violations of the Antideficiency Act all throughout the D.C. government. Those people ought to be very afraid because the penalties are severe.”

When it comes to prosecuting employees who are violating the law, Harris — whose stance has made him unwelcome at at least one Capitol Hill-area business — said all city employees, including the mayor, should be held accountable.

“They Antideficiency Act doesn’t say everybody except the mayor,” he said. “The Antideficiency Act is clear. It has two years’ jail time and loss of a job, as well as penalties. You cannot violate the clear intent of Congress in an appropriations measure. D.C. is doing it.”

Asked about the threat of jail time, Bowser smiled broadly.

“So I have a lot of things to do in the District of Columbia — me being in jail wouldn’t be a good thing,” she said.

Later Wednesday, a Chaffetz aide said the lawmaker had not decided on his next move.

“We are waiting for a response to our letter in order to determine our next steps and any possible legal action,” Oversight Committee spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said Wednesday afternoon.

Bowser said that the city was “reviewing the congressman’s letter, and we intend to be cooperative.”

Meanwhile, congressional backers of legalization jumped to the District’s defense, arguing that Republicans are exercising an unnecessary amount of control over the city.

“This is the kind of absurdity that highlights the need for Washington, D.C., to be considered a state,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). “Would any of us put up with members of Congress threatening to jail our governors?”

“Luckily,” he added later, “members of Congress have no power to jail people.”

Other Democrats are using the GOP threats against D.C. as ammunition in the fight for more District representation in Congress.

“I didn’t come here to be the city council for the District of Columbia,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “D.C. should make its laws and its rules and regulations based on the people in the District of Columbia in the same way that we do in the state of Connecticut.”

The showdown is the climax of a months-long conflict about whether D.C. will be able to legalize the drug — much of the legal wrangling hinges on when, exactly, the initiative becomes law.

Critics of legalization say the measure never became law in the District, because a formal congressional review process occurred after the passage of the measure designed to block funding.

D.C. officials argue that the initiative became law the moment voters approved it.

As drafted, the measure allows residents to possess up to 2 ounces of the drug. But it cannot be sold, used in public or be kept on the patchwork of federal land around the capital city.

D.C. officials have since had conversations with members of Congress about the issue, Bowser said. The District has said that it will not allow stores to sell marijuana, meaning it will not spend money on regulating a market for the drug.

It appeared on Wednesday afternoon that leaders remained far away from reaching a deal with Congress.

Still, Bowser said the conflict would not keep her up on Wednesday night. Asked if she would be awake at 12:01 a.m., she replied quickly: “No, absolutely not.”