Washington, D.C.

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After voters in Washington, D.C. resoundingly passed Initiative 71 in November 2014, legalizing the possession and personal, nonmedical use of marijuana by adults in the District, Congress balked. Because of D.C.’s singular status as a federal district rather than a state, the law was subjected to a 30-day Congressional review before it could take effect. Some members of Congress from Maryland and elsewhere have expressed concerns about the law, threatening to withhold funding from the District and even suggesting that city officials could be jailed if the law took effect. Despite the congressional blow-back, the mayor of D.C. announced that the law would take effect and marijuana possession and use by adults became legal as of February 26, 2015. But some in Congress are not backing down.

Initiative 71

Before enactment of the new law, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana (other than by a registered medical marijuana patient) was punishable by a fine of $25.00 in D.C. Following the mayor’s announcement, it is now legal for people age 21 or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal, nonmedical use in the District. The initiative also permits adults to grow up to six marijuana plants, no more than three of which may be flowering plants, within D.C. city limits. Patients with disabling conditions who have a written recommendation from a physician have been allowed to buy and use medical marijuana law since 2010.

Unlike the marijuana legalization laws that passed in Oregon and Alaska in the same election, D.C.’s Initiative 71 does not allow commercial production, processing, or sale of marijuana for personal, nonmedical use. As a result of pressures from some in Congress, the D.C. City Council dropped consideration of separate legislation to legalize sales for personal use.

Uncertain Future

Even though D.C.’s mayor and other municipal officials have enacted Initiative 71, the law still faces at least two major challenges: Congressional action, and the new law’s failure to establish a system to sell and regulate marijuana for personal use.

Congressional oversight

Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House committee with oversight of District legislative and fiscal matters, and another conservative member of the committee sent a letter to the mayor of D.C. on February 24, 2015, warning her that legalization of marijuana in the District is a “knowing and willful violation of law.” The letter demands the names of District officials involved in the enactment of Initiative 71, as well as an accounting of District funds expended in the enactment.

In addition to the not-so-veiled threat of legal action against the officials involved, the letter implies that District funding could be curtailed in response to pot legalization. D.C. relies on Congress for much of its municipal budget.

No system for legal sales

Even District politicians who support Initiative 71 have expressed concerns about its enactment without an accompanying set of laws and regulations governing production, processing, and sales of marijuana for personal use. And, now that some in Congress have aggressively objected to the law, the City Council has dropped its exploration of laws that would permit legal grow operations.

Initiative 71 Restricted to D.C. City Limits

Even if the Congressional bluster does not lead to legal action and the City Council manages to set up a way for District residents to legally purchase marijuana for personal, nonmedical use, residents will be allowed to possess and/or grow marijuana only within the District. Personal use and possession of more than 10 grams of marijuana are illegal in Maryland. This would mean that people who legally purchase and possess an ounce of marijuana in D.C. could be arrested for possession as soon as they passed beyond the city limits.

Some marijuana-legalization proponents believe that the passage (and ultimate enactment) of Initiative 71 could persuade Marylanders to adopt a friendlier stance toward legalization themselves.