"I think the attorney general should prosecute people in the District who participate in this under the Anti-Deficiency Act," said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who introduced the appropriations amendment intended to block the city from moving forward with the marijuana legalization measure passed by voters in November. The federal Anti-Deficiency Act imposes criminal penalties on government employees who knowingly spend public funds in excess of their appropriated budgets.
When voters in Alaska, Colorado, and the state of Washington voted to legalize marijuana, state laws honored the will of the public. But when voters in our nation's capital did the same thing, the Republican-led Congress intervened. Things got a little complicated.
Technically, as of early this morning, marijuana possession became legal in Washington, D.C. But GOP lawmakers, specifically in the U.S. House, have not-so-subtly urged local officials not to proceed with the city's plans.
The Washington Post report added that House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sent D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) a rather aggressive letter this week, warning of legal repercussions.
"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," Chaffetz's letter said. It was signed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chair of the House panel that oversees D.C. affairs. In a follow-up interview, Chaffetz told the Post that local officials run the risk of going "to prison for this."
The irony is hard to miss. Conservative Republicans, committed to a small federal government and the importance of local control, realize that the people of the District of Columbia overwhelmingly voted to make pot legal. The decision enjoys the broad support of D.C. officials. And yet, these same conservative Republican lawmakers appear willing to put their principles aside, at least in this specific case.
So what happens now?
Congress, of course, isn't responsible for law enforcement. It would be up to the Obama administration's Justice Department to intervene to block the city's new marijuana laws, and there's literally nothing to suggest that's going to happen. GOP lawmakers could head to court, but that seems unlikely, too.
If congressional Republicans respond, Meadows said the city should expect to see action "on the funding side."
And with that in mind, the local policy, approved overwhelmingly by local citizens, took effect this morning, complaints from small-government-except-in-this-case conservatives notwithstanding.
The Washington Post also had a helpful Q&A, highlighting the nuances of the new policy. Note, a sizable chunk of the District of Columbia is federal land, not city property, and no matter how local officials proceed on their new policy, pot remains illegal on federal land.