D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent Initiative 71, the ballot initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana approved by voters in November, to the United States Congress on Tuesday, beginning a 30-day congressional review period.
Congress, according to the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, reviews all pieces of legislation enacted by the D.C. Council and can block the legislation with a disapproval motion that passes through both the House and the Senate. If Congress does not act on the legislation, the bill will officially become law in the District. Initiative 71, which passed with 69.4 percent of the vote, permits adults over the age of 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to six marijuana plants and freely give one ounce of the substance to other adults.
Mendelson’s decision comes in response to the omnibus spending bill, which included a clause that prevented the usage of federal funds to “enact” marijuana legalization, authorized by Congress in December. Congressman Andy Harris (R-Md.), who introduced the so-called policy rider, claimed that this would dismantle D.C.’s legislation. Proponents of the bill and D.C. home rule, including Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), however, disagreed, opining that the initiative was enacted when voters passed the legislation in November, well before the passage of the spending bill.
“The District’s examination agrees with our analysis that the initiative was enacted when voters approved it and will take effect at the end of the 30-day congressional review period,” Norton Communications Director Benjamin Fritsch said.
This question of interpretation could lead to a judicial battle if the legislation is enacted and opponents attempt to strike it down behind the omnibus bill. Mendelson did not call the decision a political maneuver, explaining it instead as his legal obligation.
“I have no choice,” Mendelson said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The law says that I must transmit the measure. That is all I am doing.”
Despite the possibility of Congress rejecting the initiative in the next 30 legislative days, a mechanism that has been used only three times in the last 40 years, D.C. Cannabis Campaign Chairman Adam Eidinger, who introduced Initiative 71, explained that opponents to the legislation were pointing to the omnibus bill as the most likely obstacle to the initiative’s passage.
“Rep. Andy Harris and a handful of others have been out there saying that they already passed a law addressing this, that D.C. shouldn’t revisit this. They need to talk to a lawyer and read the bill they passed because the bill they passed does not address us at all,” D.C. Cannabis Campaign Chairman Adam Eidinger said. “They’re avoiding the issue for political reasons. They do not want to have to put a resolution forward because then it would be very clear who’s doing it.”
Eidinger added that if any resolution of disapproval were introduced, his organization would mobilize protests.
In preparation for legalization, the D.C. Council passed legislation in October authored by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) that sealed the criminal records of anyone convicted for marijuana possession. Grosso also had proposed legislation to enact a tax-and-regulation system similar to those in Colorado and Washington, anticipating that the system would be created and set up in 2015. This legislation has been frozen by the spending bill, preventing any implementation of such a system for the time being.