D.C. Council Drops Marijuana Hearing Under Threat of Jail Time


by Aaron Kase

on February 9, 2015

The Washington, D.C. Council scuttled a hearing on the taxation and regulation of marijuana Monday in fear they could be subject to fines or jail time. The move came after the D.C. Attorney General warned council members they could face sanctions if they moved forward with the hearing.

In November, D.C. residents voted to legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana, joining Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska in allowing recreational pot use. However, implementation of the law has been fraught with pitfalls. In December, Congress passed a bill which restricted district spending on the enactment of a regulatory regime.

The city nevertheless introduced a bill January 6 on the sale and taxation of the newly legal commerce. The D.C. Council still planned on holding a hearing on the bill up until it was scheduled to begin Monday morning, before abruptly canceling it and hosting an informal discussion instead.

Newly inaugurated District Attorney Karl A. Racine wrote a letter to the D.C. council last week warning them that he considered the hearing unlawful and that organizers could face fines of up to $5,000 and two years in jail.

Racine wrote that while he supported the implementation of marijuana legalization in general as an expression of the will of the people, to hold the hearing would nevertheless place council members and their staffs on the wrong side of the law because he considered that the meeting itself would violate the spending prohibition placed on D.C. by Congress.

Advocates of legalization have argued that Congress cannot block enactment of D.C. marijuana laws, because they were in effect already enacted by the November vote. City officials have maintained that they can study the issue and draft a law, even if Congress stops them from actually passing it. On Monday, though, caution won out.

Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the Obama administration has indicated that it will not interfere in other states that have legalized recreational use as long as they don’t violate certain federal enforcement priorities. Last week, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Matthew Botticelli said that the federal government should not butt into the district’s legalization efforts.

“As a resident of the District, I might not agree about legalization, but I do agree with our own ability to spend our own money the way that we want to do that,” Botticelli said last week.

Congress, however, has other ideas.

Washington, D.C. already allows marijuana use for medicinal purposes and in 2014 decriminalized possession of up to an ounce. The fate of full legalization is still in limbo.