On Tuesday morning, Muriel Bowser sounded ready for a showdown with Congress over legalizing marijuana in the District. While Bowser said she didn’t know how federal lawmakers would react to D.C. leaders declaring Initiative 71 valid, she said the city government “would defend the will of the people.”
Now it looks like Bowser will get her chance. In a letter to the mayor released late Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) warn the mayor not to legalize marijuana this week—-and toss in some not-so-veiled threats, too.
The District government has been surprisingly active ahead of Thursday’s planned marijuana legalization, despite legislative language in the law that funded the government for this year that forbids the city from spending money on carrying out the ballot measure. The District has printed up flyers explaining what’s changing with the law, and police officers have practiced scenarios for dealing with pot users once it becomes legal to grow and possess. Now Chaffetz and Meadows say that could all be illegal.
Supporters of Initiative 71, which aimed to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation, say that the law was already enacted in November when nearly 65 percent of voters approved it. Congress’ budget rider can’t stop the city from enacting something that’s already in place. But Chaffetz and Meadows argue in their that the initiative can’t be considered enacted until it goes through its congressional review period, which started after the language forbidding the District from legalizing marijuana passed and was signed into law.
Bowser’s administration didn’t respond to an immediate request for comment on the letter last night.
Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Meadows, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, warn that the District’s use of city money to enact the law would violate the Anti-Deficiency Act. The little-used legislation includes hefty criminal penalties for spending federal funds that haven’t been appropriated, but no one has ever been prosecuted for violating it.
“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,” the congressmen write in their letter, embedded below.
Chaffetz and Meadows say in their letter that they could back up potential legal violations with congressional investigations. They give the city until March 10 to provide a wide range of records related to Initiative 71, including how much money the city spent on transmitting the measure to Congress and creating rules around it.
More ominously for District employees, Chaffetz and Meadows ask for a list of city employees who worked on legalization, their salaries, and whether any employees refused to participate. While Chaffetz and Meadows could use that list to figure out how much the District spent on legalization, it could also be used to find people to prosecute for violating the Anti-Deficiency Act.
The congressional letter could send the District government scrambling for more unorthodox opions than the open defiance officials have opted for so far. One option: the plan floated by the D.C. Appleseed think tank to spend reserve money from previous years on legalization, which could in theory get around breaking the Anti-Deficiency Act.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery