In the final hours before marijuana possession is scheduled to become legal in the nation's capital, House Republicans have warned District of Columbia officials that they could go to jail if the measure to legalize goes into effect, but D.C.'s mayor has not backed down.
"You can go to prison for this," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in a Wednesday interview with The Washington Post about the marijuana law that is supposed to go into effect Thursday. "We’re not playing a little game here."
In a letter sent to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Tuesday, Reps. Chaffetz and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told the mayor that if the city decides to move forward with the legalization of marijuana in the District, "you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law."
"We believe that we're on very strong legal ground," Bowser said Wednesday, Reuters reported.
"My Administration is committed to upholding the will of DC voters. We will implement Initiative 71 in a thoughtful, responsible way," Bowser wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
In a statement Wednesday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) blasted what she called “unnecessarily hostile congressional reactions" to the District moving forward with its marijuana law. Norton specifically called out Chaffetz, characterizing his letter and comments to the media as "baseless threats" that fail to acknowledge that there is a "good-faith and honest" difference of legal opinion on the effects of a provision within the recently passed federal spending bill that seeks to block D.C.'s marijuana law.
That difference of opinion arises from language used in a provision introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) aimed at blocking D.C.'s ability to use funds to enact marijuana laws, which was tucked into the federal spending bill Congress passed in December. Initially, the bill said that D.C. may not "enact or carry out" any law to legalize marijuana, but it was altered in the version that was signed in to law to read that D.C. cannot "enact" any law to legalize marijuana. Norton, along with multiple congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), believe that the measure was "enacted" by voters when they approved it in November and are in favor of allowing the law to move forward. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) submitted the marijuana legalization initiative to Congress in January, ignoring the GOP's effort to block the measure.
D.C.'s city government is mostly autonomous, but the U.S. Constitution gives Congress final say over the District's laws. As such, there has been much debate over whether the District can implement its recently passed marijuana law.
In November, D.C. voters approved an initiative that legalized up to 2 ounces of recreational marijuana for personal use and up to six marijuana plants for home cultivation. While marijuana sales remain banned under the measure, there has been some discussion of implementing further legislation that would allow for sales and taxation of cannabis.
A mandatory 30-day congressional review of the bill has been ongoing, but the clock is running out for lawmakers to take action against marijuana legalization in D.C. The measure will automatically go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday if Congress does not interfere.
“The District is not responsible if the Republican language failed to convey their apparent intent, and their failure should not result in unbecoming threats to District officials," Norton said. "It is particularly absurd and threatening to conclude that differences in opinion between lawyers for Republicans and lawyers for the District put city officials 'in knowing and willful violation of the law.’”
In their letter to Bowser, Chaffetz and Meadows wrote, "It is a basic legal tenet that legislation is not enacted and does not become law until the final act effectuating that process occurs."
They go on to say that even the District's act of transmitting the initiative is already "likely in violation" of law.
"Given Congress's broad powers to legislate with regard to the District of Columbia it would be unprecedented for the District to take actions proscribed by legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President," they wrote.
In the letter, the House Republicans also demand that Bowser provide a list of any D.C. employee who participated in the enactment of the marijuana law, as well as the employees' salaries and how much time they've spent on action surrounding the measure. They also ask for a tally of all funds used to enact the law, as well as for any related documents.
Marijuana policy reformers were appalled by the suggestion that any D.C. officials could go to jail over the new law.
"I thought putting people in jail for using marijuana was absurd enough, but a member of Congress threatening the mayor of the nation's capital with prison time just for implementing the will of her city's voters is completely unacceptable," Tom Angell, chairman of reform advocacy group Marijuana Majority, told HuffPost. "Other Republicans would do well to distance themselves from these undemocratic comments."