The D.C. Council meeting hadn’t even started yet, and the councilmembers were already bickering. Ignoring a request from the District’s congressional overlords about marijuana, Chairman Phil Mendelson warned, would only “piss them off.”
“You pissed them off,” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans shot back.
Welcome to the post-marijuana-legalization District, where the pols are somehow even less mellow.
Ahead of legalization last week, everyone—Mayor Muriel Bowser, Attorney General Karl Racine, the Council, and the organizers behind pot-friendly Initiative 71—was publicly in agreement that legalizing the drug was, itself, legal. In the aftermath of congressional threats aimed at blocking legalization, though, one-time allies are falling out over how to treat the drug. The rift could make turning the District’s convoluted marijuana regime into something resembling Colorado or Washington’s tax-and-regulate system even more difficult.
First up for District officials: how to respond to Rep. Jason Chaffetz and other congressional Republicans, all of whom are hot for prosecutions. Last week, Chaffetz warned the District that legalizing the drug would violate the federal Anti-Deficiency Act, which forbids spending federal money that hasn’t been appropriated. Thanks to a December rider inserted by Republicans in legislation funding the government until October, the District is forbidden from using funds to legalize the drug (legal opinions from the city’s own lawyers say enacting Initiative 71 was still legal, because it was “enacted” when voters approved the initiative in the previous fiscal year, funding for which wasn’t encumbered by the rider).
Chaffetz’s ire cooled considerably after the Department of Justice showed no interest in prosecuting Bowser, Mendelson, or anyone else in the Wilson Building. No one has ever been charged for violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, making perp walks for city officials even less likely to happen.
Now that they’ve dodged prosecution for the time being, the mayor and councilmembers have to decide how to respond to Chaffetz’s requests for the names of all city employees who worked on legalization. In providing names, the District could essentially be handing over a list of potential defendants if a Republican ever becomes U.S. Attorney here (which would, of course, require a Republican to be elected president).
Bowser’s spokesman Michael Czin tells LL the mayor is cooperating with Chaffetz’s questions, but won’t elaborate further.
The Council, being the Council, can’t be so obscure. When Mendelson suggested providing staffers’ names to Chaffetz at Tuesday’s Council breakfast, councilmembers turned on their titular leader like bank robbers who had been found out. Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander urged her colleagues to “forget Congress,” while Evans urged Mendelson to not give in to Chaffetz.
“Phil, you started down this road,” Evans said. “I didn’t.”
Chaffetz’s office didn’t have a comment on the councilmembers plotting to ignore him. It’s not decided yet exactly what they’ll do, but Mendelson favors just sending in the names of councilmembers and staffers who were at the dais during an informal meeting on legalization shortly before the initiative took effect.
Councilmembers may be divided on whether to give up their staffers to Congress, but they’re all in agreement on pot clubs. Lawmakers voted unanimously earlier this week on legislation from Bowser to ban marijuana use in clubs that require paid membership, which could have exploited a loophole in Initiative 71 to allow semi-public use of the drug, instead of just in private homes.
All of that isn’t sitting well with Bowser’s erstwhile allies in the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which put Initiative 71 on the ballot. Cannabis Campaign leader Adam Eidinger tells LL that Bowser’s bill amounts to a “a smack in the face.” (Initiative backers in the Drug Policy Alliance agree, and sent councilmembers a letter saying the club bill would violate the spirit of Initiative 71.)
There was a time that Eidinger and Bowser’s mutual vibe was much more Cheech and Chong. An admiring Washington Post story last week laid out Bowser’s plan, hatched in late March 2014 as she cruised towards a primary victory over Vince Gray, to keep marijuana’s more outre supporters quiet as she legalized the drug. Bowser promised to back the initiative; in exchange, activists would hold off on public smoke-ins and other kinds of antics that would set off alarms in Congress.
Now Eidinger thinks there’s a less savory deal afoot, accusing Bowser of using private pot clubs to negotiate with congressional Republicans. Eidinger is also disappointed in “so-called allies” like At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who unsuccessfully pushed his own legalization bill before the initiative passed.
Eidinger’s response: the dreaded smoke-ins.
“4/20 [April 20], it’s on,” Eidinger says. “You want smoke-ins across the city? We’ll bring them. I have friends all across America who would love to come here and organize a smoke-in.”
Eidinger isn’t kidding around. This guy has taken to wearing a red “Phrygian” cap around, as some sort of statement about liberty. The last time a political activist wore one of those, they were operating a guillotine.
All the fracas wouldn’t amount to much outside of the Wilson Building, except the District still has more work to do on marijuana. As it stands, possessing, growing and sharing certain amounts of marijuana is legal, but selling it isn’t. Councilmembers want to regulate (and tax) sales, but for now, the rider makes that impossible.
The District could have a way around the restrictions, though, courtesy of the D.C. Appleseed think tank. Appleseed, which specializes in thinking up creative ways around congressional impositions, cooked up a scheme to keep the District government running during 2013’s federal government shutdown. Now it’s got a similar plan for pot.
Here’s how Walter Smith, Appleseed’s executive director, explains the idea: The federal “cromnibus” appropriations law forbids the District from spending 2015 funds on legalization. But it doesn’t forbid the District from spending funds appropriated in previous years.
The District happens to have hundreds of millions of dollars that fit that description in the contingency fund, which previously kept the District afloat during the shutdown. All the District needs to do, Smith says, is decide that taxing and regulating marijuana amounts to an unexpected emergency. Then they can tap those funds to cover things like Council hearings and police training.
For now, according to Grosso, the Council’s marijuana energies are too focused on responding to Chaffetz to take up the Appleseed plan.
As long as the District keeps good books on how it spends the contingency funds, though, Smith says the process shouldn’t be complicated. It might be the only part of the District’s approach to legalization that isn’t.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery