Backlash looms as Washington legalizes pot

Robert MacPherson
Backlash looms as Washington legalizes pot

Washington (AFP) - Marijuana is about to become legal in Washington, but the idea of smoking pot in the shadow of the Capitol has some conservative lawmakers fuming.

Legalization follows overwhelming support in November for a voter initiative to allow the possession, but not sale, of small amounts of pot by adults in the District of Columbia from midnight (0500 GMT Thursday).

Three states -- Colorado, Washington and, since Tuesday, Alaska -- already allow recreational pot use, with Oregon set to follow in July.

"Residents spoke loud and clear when they voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia," Mayor Muriel Bowser has said.

But since the District of Columbia is not a state, and since marijuana remains illegal under federal law, some Republican lawmakers are talking tough.

"If you decide to move forward ... you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law," said Representative Jason Chaffetz in a letter Tuesday to the newly elected mayor.

Chaffetz chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees legislative matters in Washington -- the only Western capital whose residents are constitutionally denied a voting representative in their national legislature.

"You can go to prison for this," Chaffetz, an young and ambitious Republican from Utah with Tea Party credentials, added in a Washington Post interview.

"We're not playing a little game here."

- Democratic sympathies -

Only three times in four decades has Congress overturned a municipal law in Washington, whose residents favor the Democratic Party so strongly that the Republicans don't bother contesting many local elected positions.

Well aware of the fine line that the growing district of 650,000 is walking, the city government has tied plenty of strings to its local marijuana law.

Adults can possess no more than two ounces of pot, enough to roll about 80 cigarette-sized joints, and grow up to six cannabis plants at home.

The sale of pipes, bongs and rolling papers will be permitted -- but the buying and selling of marijuana will not.

"Home use. Home-grown," is the buzz phrase.

However, under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is not only illegal, but ranked on a par with heroin and LSD as one of the most dangerous illicit drugs around.

And given Washington's peculiar status as a non-state, federal law enforcement agencies like the US Park Police can still bust anyone in the district for any amount of pot -- regardless of what the local law says or how tolerant the local police might be.

With 51 percent of Americans in favor of legalization, according to a Gallup poll in October, activists see Washington as a milestone in their fight to overturn the prohibition of marijuana.

"If the president can brew and drink beer in the White House, adults should be allowed to grow and consume a less harmful substance in their houses," said Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Alcohol is no longer the only authorized social lubricant in town. A safer alternative is legal for adults."

- 'Safer alternative' -

In those states that have legalized marijuana, federal prosecutors have been instructed to avoid minor cases and focus instead on serious offenses, like the sale of pot to minors.

Congressional Republicans tried to short-circuit legalization in the District of Columbia when they slipped a line into a spending bill banning the city from enacting the new pot law.

But city hall determined that move came too late to be valid, as the marijuana initiative was already "enacted" when it was approved by voters at the ballot box in November.

For its part, President Barack Obama's administration has stated that Washington ought to be able to run itself, regardless of its federal district status.

"We do not believe that Congress should spend a lot of time interfering with the ability of the citizens of the District of Columbia to make decisions related to how they should govern their community." White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in December.