Defiant D.C. Politicians Push Ahead With Pot Legalization

By Steven Nelson, U.S. News & World Report, January 8, 2015

Congress recently passed legislation intending to stop the District of Columbia from becoming an East Coast outpost of marijuana legalization, but district politicians are moving forward with efforts to open recreational pot stores anyhow.

Councilman David Grosso, an independent, quietly introduced legislation Tuesday to tax and regulate sales of marijuana like alcohol. Four Democratic colleagues on the 13-member D.C. Council are co-sponsoring the bill.

“I think we’re on the path to seeing this bill enacted,” Grosso tells U.S. News, noting that “by moving this bill forward, we’re directly confronting Congress.”

Grosso introduced a similar bill in 2013, and it passed two council committees last year. In November, district voters overwhelmingly endorsed legalization, with 70 percent approving Initiative 71, which would cast off all penalties for possession of up to 2 ounces of pot for adults 21 and older.

The initiative results have not yet been transmitted to Congress for a mandatory review period, but that’s likely to happen soon. Congress has the power to block district laws with resolutions of disapproval, but more often passes budget riders to dictate city policies.

That happened in December, when Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law a budget rider written by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., that bans the district from spending its own funds to legalize marijuana in the nation's capital.

Harris told U.S. News last year that district leaders can unilaterally abandon marijuana enforcement whenever they would like, but he intended with his rider to stop the actual law from changing and to prevent shops from opening.

Congress passed a similar budget rider after district voters passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1998, stalling the opening of dispensaries for more than a decade. Grosso says city officials didn't put up enough resistance then, and hopes for a fight this time.

Some politicians say Initiative 71, which also allows home cultivation of six plants, was already enacted when voters passed it, and thus will take effect regardless of congressional input. 

The initiative was not able to establish a regulated marketplace for marijuana sales – as successful ballot measures in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington did – leaving such regulation to the D.C. Council.

“This is a golden opportunity to do direct civil disobedience,” Grosso says of his bill, “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.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, and most of the council appear to support moving forward with legalization. The council passed one of the nation’s most lenient decriminalization laws last year, lowering penalties for possession of 1 ounce to a $25 fine, with an eye toward going even further.

A spokeswoman for Bowser did not respond to a request for comment on Grosso's bill. But during a Sunday appearance on "Meet the Press," the mayor said, "We want to respect the will of the D.C. voters," and, "We have to have regulations in place."

Though Harris’ budget rider prohibits the district from spending funds to create a regulated pot marketplace, a successful bill like Grosso’s likely would still need to be killed with a congressional resolution of disapproval.

Grosso believes if the regulation bill is sent to Congress, it would technically survive review. But it's unclear what would happen then, given the Harris budget rider.

The councilman says districts residents can help.

"But for Congress we would have marijuana stores opening by the end of the year," he says. "Some person from middle-of-nowhere Maryland can come and tell us what's best for us, it's ridiculous. … Congress will give us our rights when 10,000 people a week show up on their doorstep and scream at them, but people aren't doing that yet."