City leaders declared Tuesday that marijuana possession will become legal in the District at 12:01 a.m. Thursday — but warned the public that many pot-related activities will remain illegal, including selling the drug, growing it outdoors, possessing it in federally subsidized housing and smoking it anywhere in public.
In remarks to the D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier offered their first public guidance on Initiative 71 — when it will take effect, what it will mean and how it will be enforced — since the ballot measure was overwhelmingly approved in the fall.
Uncertainty remained, however, about whether Initiative 71 really will be the law of the city come Thursday. Late Tuesday, Republican congressional leaders sent Bowser a letter urging her to reconsider pot legalization, which the letter described as a “knowing and willful violation of the law.”
In an interview, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said: “Federal law, signed by the president, confirms that D.C. cannot move forward. If they are under any illusion that this would be legal, they are wrong. And there are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We’re not playing a little game here.”
Chaffetz is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees legislative matters concerning the District.
In their remarks earlier in the day, Bowser and Lanier made clear that the city planned to move ahead despite congressional opposition. But they paid as much attention to what will be forbidden as to what will be allowed.
They said District residents and visitors will be able to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana, a large sandwich bag’s worth. Residents will also be able to cultivate the plant in their homes — up to six seedlings each, with up to three plants grown to maturity. Marijuana paraphernalia, including pipes, bongs and rolling papers, will be legal.
Profiting from pot in almost any way and lighting up anywhere outside a home — including restaurants and parked cars — will be forbidden. Bowser also called for legislation to block the formation of a “gray market” for pot, with features such as the organization of “cannabis clubs” whose membership fees could pay for access to the drug.
“Residents spoke loud and clear when they voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said. The task now, she said, is “to implement in a safe, fair and transparent way.”
Tangled in a web of federal oversight, the District’s journey to marijuana legalization has lurched forward since Initiative 71 passed in November. Instead of writing regulations governing how the drug would be bought, sold, tracked and taxed — a process that took more than a year in Colorado and Washington state — the District was quickly blocked from doing so by Congress. The city’s attorney general advised officials that even talking about how to allow pot sales could result in jail time for them.
That warning, coupled with fear of provoking further interference from Congress, prompted leaders to say virtually nothing until Tuesday, little more than a day before pot is expected to become legal.
But what they said Tuesday was too much, according to Chaffetz and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who warned of dire consequences for the city and said in the letter to Bowser that their committee will investigate the city’s actions.
“We’re putting them on notice,” Chaffetz told The Washington Post. “The mayor has to decide if she is going to follow the law.”
Bowser did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
Lanier spent Tuesday morning speaking publicly with Bowser and the D.C. Council about what city leaders presented as the reality of Initiative 71’s taking effect.
To emphasize the continued risk of carrying marijuana around the District, Lanier and other officials emphasized a catchphrase to help people remember to keep pot indoors: “Home use. Home grown.”
D.C. police will encourage those who want to smoke and grow marijuana to do so out of sight. Police will ticket people for lighting up anywhere in public and will continue to arrest anyone they think is trying to sell or buy the drug.
In addition, Bowser said she would ask the D.C. Council to approve emergency legislation to prohibit private clubs from following the model of Amsterdam coffee shops, where pot can be openly exchanged.
The move could rein in an expected free-for-all when the voter-approved measure takes effect. The mayor warned that the prohibition on pot clubs could be the first in a series of laws she will seek to make sure that legalized pot stays out of public view.
Some were immediately skeptical that the mayor could deliver on that promise. “I don’t think they can keep a lid on it,” said Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police officers union. “Our ability to do enforcement has been severely restricted.”
Burton said that since last year, when the District eliminated criminal penalties for pot, it has become almost impossible for officers to develop reasonable suspicion for an arrest for smoking in public. And if pot clubs meet in private, he sees even less chance for officers to investigate. “With the federal laws and local laws, they’ve created a mishmash of stuff here that makes it nearly impossible.”
Lanier said that police will attempt to draw a bright line prohibiting public use.
Police will be instructed to continue ticketing or arresting people for public smoking of marijuana, an offense akin to drinking in public, which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The new law will also not affect the District’s prohibition against driving under the influence of drugs. Anyone caught smoking marijuana while operating a car could face penalties stiffer than those for public use and on a par with those for driving while intoxicated.
To the disappointment of proponents of Initiative 71 and its provisions for home cultivation, Lanier said it would be illegal to grow marijuana on balconies, on rooftops and in back yards. She said home cultivation of pot will be permitted only indoors.
Adam Eidinger, head of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, has lobbied for cultivation to be allowed in restricted outdoor areas of private residences, saying it would be safer and friendlier to the environment than having home growers use powerful heat lights indoors.
In a question-and-answer session with D.C. Council members, Lanier specified a restriction on possession beyond what Initiative 71 spells out, saying that only two ounces per adult would be allowed at private residences. The initiative said pot harvested at home could remain there, which over time could far exceed two ounces.
Still, the police chief acknowledged that enforcing restrictions in private homes will remain a challenge, and she said the smell of marijuana or even complaints from neighbors might not be probable cause to enter a home to investigate.
The District is potentially joining Colorado, Washington state and, as of this week, Alaska in legalizing marijuana. But the combination of Congress’s unique oversight of the city and federal jurisdiction over much of the city means that legal pot could look very different in the nation’s capital.
Congress, which has the power to review all city laws, could still intervene to block Initiative 71 from taking effect. Congressional leaders also could put a stop to the endeavor with a single sentence in a future budget.
Chaffetz and Meadows said in their letter that the action Congress took last fall in the federal budget was enough to block the initiative from taking effect.
“The Continuing Resolution enacted last December made clear no appropriated funds of any sort may be used ‘to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize’ marijuana ‘for recreational purposes,’ ” the letter states. “As such, your assertion that Initiative 71 takes effect on Thursday is contrary to law. We strongly suggest you reconsider your position.”
Bowser’s office declared unequivocally in a flier circulated Tuesday that the initiative will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
Lanier and Bowser spoke at length about the complex challenges that will flow from the District’s legalizing marijuana in a city that is more than one-quarter federal land.
The chief said D.C. police will not make arrests for violations of the prohibitions against smoking and possessing marijuana in federally subsidized public housing. But she said federal officers and housing authority police might.
More than two dozen federal law enforcement agencies operate in the city and will be bound by federal drug laws that make marijuana possession punishable by up to a year in jail.
Lanier said federal officers who make arrests for minor violations of pot laws can process prisoners at District police processing centers. D.C. officers will not process the arrests.
Another wrinkle in the park-heavy District: U.S. Park Police officers have jurisdiction throughout the District, not just on federal land. Lanier said Park Police have agreed to enforce federal law on federal property and District law elsewhere.
“Knowing your geography is important,” Lanier said.