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Unless Congress Intervenes, Recreational Pot Is About To Be Legal In D.C.


Beginning tomorrow, residents of Washington, D.C., will be free to smoke marijuana recreationally. D.C.'s new law allows people over 21 to possess, grow and smoke a limited amount of pot, but not to sell it. Martin Austermuhle of member station WAMU reports Congress still wants to stop the legalization.

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: As the clock strikes 12:01 on Thursday morning, a new pot legalization law will take effect in the nation's capital, dropping criminal penalties for possessing, using and growing marijuana.

CARLOS: Well, we're looking at two plants grown in a 2-foot by 3-foot by 5-foot tent, 600-watt HPS in a closet.

AUSTERMUHLE: Carlos is showing me the makeshift marijuana growing operation he has hidden away in his bedroom closet at his apartment in southeast Washington. He's been growing for six years, all the time running the risk that the police would uncover his illicit stash. We're not using Carlos's full name because his home cultivating has thus far been illegal, but now he's hours away from being able to grow his pot openly.

CARLOS: This means absolute freedom to me, knowing that I can literally come out of the closet (laughter), literally, pull my tent out of the closet and not have to fear anything.

AUSTERMUHLE: Well, almost anything. Just like every law passed by D.C.'s local legislature, Congress has the final say on what the federal city can and cannot do. On marijuana, congressional Republicans have been clear - don't legalize it. Here's Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House committee that oversees D.C., speaking to CNN earlier this month.


REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: I respect the people who live here and most everything passes through without a problem, but the idea that this is going to be a haven for pot smoking, I can't support that.

AUSTERMUHLE: In December, Congress prohibited D.C. from spending any money on legalizing pot, but city officials found a loophole allowing them to move forward on Initiative 71, the voter-approved measure that legalizes possession and cultivation. Here's Karl Racine, the District's attorney general.

KARL RACINE: We believe that Initiative 71 became law when it passed as a referendum two weeks prior to the time that Congress imposed its rider precluding further use of funds on issues related to legalization of marijuana.

AUSTERMUHLE: But that's as far as it'll go for now. Racine has warned D.C.'s local legislators not to debate or vote on a proposed bill that would set up Colorado-style retail sales of marijuana in Washington. He says that the congressional ban applies to that bill and D.C. officials would run the risk of violating federal law if they try to legalize pot sales.

For pot advocates, like Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project, that puts D.C. in a tough spot. Possessing and growing marijuana will be legal, but the city won't be able to regulate or tax it like Colorado and Washington state have.

DAN RIFFLE: It's important that counsel have the tools at their disposal to actually effectively regulate marijuana and ensure that this is done safely and responsibly, that we collect tax revenue and use that revenue to fund enforcement of, you know, regulations. So I think we're looking at a potentially chaotic situation.

AUSTERMUHLE: Despite the fight with Congress, D.C. officials are working to make sure that residents and visitors understand what's going to happen on Thursday. Smoking on the National Mall? That won't be allowed. Sharing a joint with a friend in a private residence? That's OK. Selling? Nope. Growing a few plants like Carlos does? Legal under D.C. law.

CARLOS: Once people know that they have nothing to fear from the law, it's going to take off. It's definitely going to take off.

AUSTERMUHLE: Carlos is already betting that he'll have a new line of work once legalization becomes reality - helping other people grow their own pot. For NPR News in Washington, I'm Martin Austermuhle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Austermuhle is a reporter in WAMU’s newsroom. He covers politics, development, education, social issues, and crime, among other things. Austermuhle joined the WAMU staff in April 2013 as a web producer and reporter. Prior to that, he served as editor-in-chief for DCist.com. He has written for the Washington City Paper, Washington Diplomat and other publications.

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