DC Council May Have Lost the Battle Over Retail Weed, but Could Still Win the War

There was was a showdown earlier this week in the streets of the nation’s capital over the legalization of marijuana. The District of Columbia Council had planned to conduct a hearing on Monday to explore the development of a taxed and regulated recreational marijuana market, but Karl Racine, the District’s newly elected attorney general, stepped up with threats of incarceration due to the hearing being in direct conflict with a rider attached to a recent federal spending bill.

While the District of Columbia waits on bended knee for the outcome of a congressional review that is to decide whether Initiative 71 will be allowed to get underway, city lawmakers are warned that any additional efforts to further the establishment of a retail pot market could lead to federal prosecution.

The D.C. council had been doing its best to quietly combat a rider attached to the 2016 budget, which prohibits the District from using federal or state funds to legalize a controlled substance. However, in a memo from the Office of the Attorney General, Racine explains that simply holding a hearing to discuss the possibility of establishing legal pot sales is a clear violation of Representative Andy Harris’ rider because it involves the expenditure of local funds.

The council was advised that proceeding with plans to launch a cannabis industry was strictly prohibited, and any employee who participated in affairs associated with the enactment of marijuana legislation would be in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act and subject to fines of up to $5,000 and two years in prison.

In an attempt to bypass the not-so-charming concept of spending time in a federal penitentiary for simply holding a discussion to better the economic climate of the city, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson elected to downgrade the hearing to an informal roundtable debate with key members of three committees. It was made clear in Racine’s letter that this form of deliberation would not unleash the dogs of Congress.

In January, District lawmakers announced plans to resist the congressional tactic to sandbag the future of marijuana commerce in the nation’s capital by moving ahead with a proposal to establish a taxed and regulated market. The idea behind this aggressive action was by advancing legislation to legalize the leaf it would force Congress to react to the District’s “direct civil disobedience,” by either killing it and burying on Capitol Hill or allowing it to pass.

Sadly, the latest blow indicates the District will not get the opportunity to cleverly manipulate the chambers of Congress because any move to further the legalization of marijuana, at least for the next year, conflicts with Harris’ rider. Interestingly, however, this is only true with regard to the use of local funds, which could by bypassed if the District taps into its reserve coffers, according to Walter Smith with D.C. Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. Here lays a potential loophole, he suggests, because Harris’ rider only blocks the District from using local funds to “enact” legislation, not to carry it out, so there exists the possibility that money needed to enact a new proposal could be pulled from the budget remaining from the fiscal year 2015.

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