Washington's New Mayor Is Standing Up to Congress on Legal Marijuana

AP

Despite the fact that Congress closed out 2014 by quietly ending the federal government's war on medical marijuana, everyone's least-favorite legislative body kept Washington, D.C., from actually enforcing the marijuana legalization voters overwhelmingly approved in November.

Now D.C.'s newly elected mayor plans on pushing back. In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city will "explore every option" to get its law legalizing marijuana enforced — including, potentially, a lawsuit.

Congress has oversight over the city's laws, despite D.C.'s representation in the body being limited to a non-voting member. In the interview, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked how Washington's historically tense relationship with Congress will likely to be tested as city leaders decide how far to press in implementing the voter-approved ballot measure on legalized marijuana. 

Here's Bowser and Todd's exchange, per the Washington Post

"Congress basically said no," Todd said. "Are you going to challenge Congress on that?"

"Well, we want to respect the will of the D.C. voters, and we think that Initiative 71 is self-enacting," the mayor said, using a legal term that proponents of the ballot measure say means Congress can't effectively stop the city from legalizing pot.

"The bottom line for us is we have to have laws that are clear and enforceable," Bowser said.

"Are you going to sue Congress over this?" Todd asked.

"We want to work with our Congress, and we want the will of the residents of D.C. to be enforced."

"Have you ruled out a lawsuit?" Todd repeated.

"We're going to explore every option," Bowser said.

The background: More than 70% of district voters approved a ballot initiative in November that legalized recreational marijuana in Washington. Initiative 71 would allow possession of up to 2 ounces of pot or up to three mature plants for personal use.

Congress has worked to keep the city from implementing the measure. Its omnibus spending bill, passed in December, contains two nearly identically worded provisions which explicitly target "reducing penalties" associated with marijuana possession, meaning that even D.C.'s marijuana decriminalization measure, passed months before voters overwhelmingly approved of legalization, could be in jeopardy.

Both legalization advocates and civil libertarians are furious. "It's totally disturbing; it's entirely undemocratic," Adam Eidinger, who helped collect more than 57,000 signatures this year so the district could vote on put the ballot measure, told the Washington Post. "I'm ready for some civil disobedience. If you're going to overturn an election, you might as well say something before it's done."

Why it matters: The district's looming marijuana legalization fight won't just be about cannabis. Because Congress constitutionally exercises jurisdiction over Washington, the conflict between district voters and lawmakers over legalization will likely fuel another round of intense debate over D.C. statehood — especially since the same spending bill that kneecapped legalization also instructed the Department of Justice to stop meddling with state medical marijuana initiatives.

"If reports are true, members of Congress from both parties bargained away the rights of the people of the District of Columbia, and in doing so compromised the core democratic values of the United States," said Kimberly Perry, head of D.C. Vote, an organization dedicated to voting representation for the district in Congress. She urged members of Congress to "vote against this attempt to undermine democracy."

"It is disheartening and frustrating to learn that once again the District of Columbia is being used as a political pawn by the Congress," said D.C. council member at large David Grosso. "To undermine the vote of the people — taxpayers — does not foster or promote the 'limited government' stance House Republicans claim they stand for; it's uninformed paternalistic meddling."

Watch Bowser's Meet the Press segment below: