Despite Congressional Opposition, D.C. to Legalize Marijuana Starting Thursday

AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico
AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico
Washington D.C.

Despite warnings from Congress against their plans, the Washington, D.C. City Council stands ready to preside over Thursday’s legalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

With the overwhelming passage of Initiative 71 in last year’s elections, the District of Columbia has legalized possession of up to two ounces of marijuana as well as six cannabis plants in the home–all expressly for personal use.

While the sale of pot is still a crime, Initiative 71 allows for the transfer of up to two ounces from one person to another as long as no payment changes hands. The sale of drug paraphernalia for the use, growing, or processing of marijuana is also legalized.

It isn’t a free-for-all, though. On Wednesday USA Today outlined the many places and situations where pot is still not legal in the District.

District residents cannot smoke or otherwise consume marijuana in a public space, including at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, or on any federal property. Public housing tenants cannot smoke weed in their homes, because they are government owned. Marijuana users are not allowed to operate a vehicle or boat under the influence of the drug.

Extensive polling on Initiative 71 found a large majority of D.C. residents supported legalization, and on election day the law passed with just over 70 percent of the vote.

Many residents voted in favor of the initiative because they viewed the matter as a racial issue. One advocacy group, for instance, sold a “yes” vote saying, “in 2010 black people in the District accounted for 91 percent of all marijuana arrests–even though black and white people use marijuana at roughly similar rates.”

But not everyone is high on P=pot in the District of Columbia.

The Washington Post, for one, urged voters not to vote in favor of Initiative 71, saying that residents should wait to see the results of the experiments in legalization from other states and cities before surging ahead on legalizing pot in D.C.

Citing the American Medical Association, the Post warned residents that marijuana is a “dangerous drug” that is still “a public health concern.”

The paper isn’t alone. Congressional Republicans warned that despite what city officials say, pot is still illegal by federal law and jail time is absolutely an option for violators.

A letter sent Tuesday to the D.C. Council from Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and the chairman of the subcommittee that handles D.C. affairs Mark Meadows (R-NC) warned that going through with the legalization is in direct violation of federal law. “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 letter read in part.

Congressional Republicans are urging the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder to become involved in the issue.

“I believe the attorney general is the one who would bring action under the Anti-Deficiency Act, and I would hope that we would call on the attorney general to do just that. This is a gross violation of the intention of Congress… Our intention was clear; it’s up to the attorney general to actually enforce the law,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) told the Washington Post.

The DOJ has thus far resisted commenting on the issue.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at