WASHINGTON – Two leading House Republicans are warning Washington’s mayor not to move forward with marijuana legalization and have launched an investigation into whether the city has already violated federal law by preparing to implement a voter-approved initiative.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, sent a letter to District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser late Tuesday after the mayor announced that recreational pot would be legal in the District starting this week. Chaffetz chairs the House Oversight Committee, which has authority over District government.
District voters approved an initiative in November that legalizes possession of up to 2 ounces of pot and up to three mature plants for use in the home. Congress approved language in December that appeared to block the initiative, but District leaders argued they could still legalize pot because the initiative was enacted before Congress took action.
Chaffetz said that interpretation is wrong and that Congress clearly banned the District from any further liberalization of its marijuana laws. Legalization is scheduled to take effect Thursday at 12:01 a.m.
In an interview Wednesday, Chaffetz said the mayor and other District employees would face possible prison time by moving forward.
“The penalties are severe, and we’re serious about this. Nobody’s wishing or wanting that to happen, but the law is clear,” he said.
The letter was also signed by Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees city government spending.
Bowser’s office had no comment on the letter Wednesday morning.
After Congress attached the language on pot to a spending bill in December, District leaders set aside plans to tax and regulate the drug or provide for its legal sale. But Bowser, a Democrat who took office in January, said she had a responsibility to implement the law after city voters approved the initiative by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
The letter warned that by spending money to change pot laws, Bowser and other District officials would violate the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits spending of federal dollars that have not been appropriated. The committee demanded that the District turn over all documents detailing money that’s been spent and time that’s been put in by city employees to implement the initiative.
No one has ever been convicted of violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, although government employees have been punished administratively for violations.
The District would become the first place east of the Mississippi River with legal recreational pot. Alaska also legalized marijuana this week, becoming the third state to do so.
“Washington, D.C., has a lot to offer. A haven for smoking pot is not one of them,” Chaffetz said. “It’s not just me. The Congress voted on it and the president signed it into law.”
Congress has final say over laws passed by the D.C. Council or approved by District voters, although it hasn’t struck down a specific city law in 25 years. Instead, members often add language to critical pieces of federal legislation to undo city policies they don’t like.
The language on pot was included in a spending bill that was needed to keep the government running.