Marijuana

Jason Chaffetz Says D.C. Officials Could Go to Prison If They Stop Busting People for Pot

Is implementing the District's marijuana legalization initiative a felony?

|

Office of Jason Chaffetz

As I mentioned yesterday, the congressional review period for Initiative 71, the District of Columbia's marijuana legalization initiative, ends today. Since Congress has not passed a joint resolution of disapproval (which was always a long shot), that means the initiative takes effect after midnight, eliminating local penalties for possession, sharing, and home cultivation by adults 21 or older. Not so fast, says Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "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," he warned in a letter he sent to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser last night. He also threatened D.C. officials with prison if they stop busting people for pot.

Chaffetz, whose committee has purview over District affairs, was referring to the rider that Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) inserted into the appropriations bill Congress approved in December, barring the District from spending money to "enact" any law reducing or eliminating penalties for marijuana-related activities. Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine maintain that the Harris amendment does not affect Initiative 71 because the ballot measure was enacted when the vote in favor of it was certified on December 3, two weeks before the spending bill was signed into law. Chaffetz, like Harris, disagrees, saying D.C. laws are not enacted until they survive congressional review:

It is a basic legal tenet that legislation is not enacted and does not become law until the final act effectuating that process occurs. Under the plain terms of the Home Rule Act, a D.C. bill does not become law until the expiration of the 30- or 60-day layover period after the bill is transmitted to Congress. The D.C. Circuit has confirmed what constitutes enactment under the District of Columbia's initiative process. The Court stated "[t]he [D.C.] initiative process is subject to the same legislative restrictions as the D.C. Council, including the congressional veto power…. " It is clear from the Court's statement that enactment of any initiative does not occur until the expiration of the 30- or 60-day layover period with Congress. Therefore, Initiative 71 was not enacted prior to the language in the Continuing Resolution preventing it from moving forward.

In the 2002 case to which Chaffetz refers, Marijuana Policy Project v. United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the Barr Amendment, a congressional spending restriction that blocked implementation of a medical marijuana initiative that D.C. voters approved in 1998 and prevented a similar initiative from appearing on the ballot in 2002. Notably, the Barr Amendment said D.C. could not "enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." The Harris rider, by contrast, applies only to enactment, not to execution. Furthermore, the Barr Amendment was in effect before the 2002 initiative was proposed, which is why the D.C. Board of Elections refused to certify the measure so that its supporters could start collecting signatures to qualify it for the ballot. That was the decision at issue in the 2002 case. Initiative 71, by contrast, was approved by voters in November, and the vote was certified well before the Harris amendment took effect.

Chaffetz suggests that the D.C. Circuit's reference to "the congressional veto power" means D.C. laws are not really enacted until after they survive review. But the implicit analogy to a president's veto power is misleading, since a bill passed by Congress does not become law unless the president signs it. Under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, by contrast, a bill passed by the D.C. Council or an initiative passed by D.C. voters "shall take effect" at the end of the review period unless Congress exercises its (rarely used) veto power. If Congress passes a joint resolution of disapproval and gets the president to sign it before the end of the review period, the resolution "shall be deemed to have repealed such act, as of the date such resolution becomes law."

In other words, the Home Rule Act describes a piece of legislation submitted for congressional review as an "act" that "take[s] effect" automatically if Congress does nothing and is "repealed" by a resolution of disapproval. That seems like pretty strong evidence that Chaffetz is wrong and Bowser et al. are right about the legal status of Initiative 71.

But according to Chaffetz, Mendelson, the D.C. Council chairman, violated the Harris amendment when he transmitted Initiative 71 to Congress on January 13, since that action was, in Chaffetz's view, necessary to enact the initiative and required some expenditure of local or federal money, if only the value of the time that Mendelson or his staff devoted to it. Chaffetz says Mendelson "likely" also violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, which authorizes criminal penalties, including fines up to $5,000 and up to two years in prison, for federal or D.C. officials who misuse money appropriated by Congress. Chaffetz amplified that point in an interview with The Washington Post, saying, "There are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We're not playing a little game here."

In his letter, Chaffetz suggests that anyone involved in "the transmission of Initiative 71 to Congress and developing rules for law enforcement or the general public" broke the law (and therefore might go to prison). Even if you accept Chaffetz's debatable reading of the Home Rule Act, he seems to be casting too wide a net here, since "rules for law enforcement or the general public" would be part of implementing Initiative 71, which is not covered by the Harris rider. But since his main goal is intimidating D.C. officials into submission, he may not be troubled by such legal niceties. 

Update: D.C. officials do not seem intimidated. Anti-pot Republicans interviewed by the Post say they do not plan to challenge Initiative 71 in court and leave consideration of criminal charges to the Justice Department.

Advertisement

NEXT: Teens Who Sext Are Child Pornographers?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. barring the District from spending money to “enact” any law reducing or eliminating penalties for marijuana-related activities

    Only in government does it cost money to stop doing something.

    1. My thoughts exactly.

    2. I think they’re saying the mere act of transmitting to Congress was the violation. Which DC argued otherwise before transmitting.

      At best, it’s an open question on who’s right which neither the DoJ nor the US Attorney are likely going to do anything to resolve.

    3. Only in government does it cost money to stop doing something.

      And a reduction in the rate of growth of spending is a cut.

  2. Charles De Mar kinda turned into a square huh?

    1. I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy

    2. “This is pure snow! It’s everywhere! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?”

    3. Hugh, he’s been going to Congress for seven and a half years. He’s no dummy.

      1. I can’t even get real drugs here!

        1. Go that way down Connecticut Ave, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.

          Then get gunned down by Capitol Police.

  3. The cops need to watch this dude like a hawk and fine/arrest him for any violation of the law, no matter how petty. Plus some stop and frisk because of a strong smell of MJ.

    1. While I do wish that would happen, I’m pretty sure the cops are on his side.

  4. This is a pathetically comical argument.

    Only if the law were an ass would it fly…

  5. Alt Text:

    Cool perm, bro.

  6. Is it a requirement that one be an insufferable douchebag to become a member of congress, or is it merely a coincidence that members of congress are invariably so?

    1. The stupid party can’t wait to reverse all of the gains that they’ve been given over the last 2 election cycles.

      If they were smart, they’d take Booger here and Andy Harris and send them on a diplomacy mission to ISIS held territory in Syria.

      1. “Hey guys… wonder joints!”

    2. Insufferable douchebags are the types who are drawn to striving for political power.

      1. ^This.

        Their urge to control is matched only by their narcissism

    3. They’re mostly, or almost mostly, lawyers. I’m starting to think nobody should be allowed to practice law or be a judge for $. No, wait, that’d really leave the amateurs who love it as a game, a recreation. All right, nobody should be allowed to practice law or be a judge for more than a year.

  7. “Chaffetz amplified that point in an interview with The Washington Post, saying, ‘There are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We’re not playing a little game here.'”

    Two things:
    1) no one in history has been prosecuted under the Anti-Deficiency Act.
    2) Chaffetz has no authority to bring such a prosecution, and Holder/Lynch certainly won’t be doing so.
    These are idle threats intended only to get his name in the paper.

  8. so absolutely everything is illegal unless specifically authorized by Congress. interesting strategy Cotton…

  9. When was the last time Congress acted on any such threat?

    1. If Congress will not act, you know who will?

      1. Hitler?

        1. You better watch out when Zombi Hitler acts!

  10. Transmission to Congress of all council and popularly-passed ordinances, however, is administratively required by the Home Rule Act.

    The spending rider did not say DC should stop transmitting duly-passed resolutions to Congress which, IIRC, DC is arguing is a zero-cost administrative function of the DC government (I believe the marijuana proposition was included with quite a few other new ordinances).

    1. Transmission to Congress of all council and popularly-passed ordinances, however, is administratively required by the Home Rule Act.

      Good point. Its going to real hard to claim that money (if any) spent as required by law is a violation of the rider or the Anti-Deficiency Act.

  11. ‘There are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We’re not playing a little game here.’

    Are you talking to *me*?

    /James Clapper

  12. “Jason Chaffetz Says D.C. Officials Could Go to Prison If They Stop Busting People for Pot”

    Win-win right there. I say we celebrate!

  13. Fuck Jason Chaffetz.

  14. To anyone claiming Republicans are the party of liberty…exhibit 1.

    The people have spoken. They are no longer in favor of pot being illegal, and here you have a crusading Republican, not even from the area, forcing his will upon others.

    Arrogant fuck!

    1. Posturing for the folks back in his Utah district. Bah.

    2. The Democrats say shit like that every day.

      1. The Democrats say shit like that every day.

        How does that make Republicans the party of liberty?

        1. Because there are only 2 parties of any significance on the national scale, and when you add up the liberty score, Republicans easily head that class. Doesn’t mean they get all the Qs right.

          1. Or ask Don Ernsberger, who studied it extensively & with no ax to grind other than a libertarian one.

    3. To anyone claiming Republicans are the party of liberty

      People who really believe that haven’t given the idea a lot of thought. And if they have and really believe it, they’re not terribly bright.

      1. Don Ernsberger gave it a hell of a lot of thought, and he’s more than passably bright. 20-25 yrs. ago I thought the major parties in the USA were equally bad, but I came to realize they were not, and it’s not even a close call.

  15. Therefore, Initiative 71 was not enacted prior to the language in the Continuing Resolution preventing it from moving forward.

    Ah, but the rider did not prevent the initiative from moving forward. It only prevented the DC government from spending money to move it forward.

    The enactment, even under the Congressional theory, happens if, well, nothing happens. Congress failed to take the necessary action to prevent enactment. Ergo, its enacted.

    Even if they can show that DC illegally spent money after the rider was passed, that doesn’t mean the enactment was void. That can only be done if Congress passes a resolution barring the enactment.

    I find the argument that the time spent by DC officials forwarding the legislation to Congress was an “expenditure” of money by DC to be very weak. If they hadn’t spent that time on the legislation, their pay would have been unaffected. DC would have spent just as much money on its staff regardless, so where’s the expenditure in violation of the rider, again?

  16. We’re not playing a little game here.

    Yes, Congressman, you are.

  17. Bob Barr: like, the most Libertarian that, like, ever Libertarianed!

    (he’s the reason I dumped that party)

  18. When the Drug War ends, and our side has won, we need to prosecute the Drug Warriors for war crimes.

    1. +1 Nuremberg, Pennsylvania

      1. Plenty of room for courts.

        And gallows.

  19. This guy wants it to be a crime for failing to arrest people who haven’t committed a crime. Say what? Has anyone else had enough yet? “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”- from the declaration of independence. I think we’re way beyond alter. Abolish gets my consent.

    1. You couldn’t even make that a crime, because who knows who would otherwise have arrested whom? The most you could do would be to get a writ of mandamus for some official to arrest some particular, named person.

  20. DC.
    Now we see how “small gvt, individual, and states rights” the GOP is. ( Yes, DC isn’t a state but to use Fed law to stifle what the people chose via an election, pretty much ends any claim that they meant what they said. )

  21. I’ve made $64,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student. I’m using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money. It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it. Heres what I’ve been doing,,,,,,,,,
    http://www.work-mill.com

  22. If Chaffetz doesn’t tow the Bill O’Reilly anti-pot stance, Bill won’t let Jeffy-boy come on The Factor anymore. Keep on kissing Billy’s butt Jeffy.

  23. The GOP continues to be The Stupid Party. That’s the ticket — continue fighting the social issues (War on women, gays and drugs) and it’ll only be a matter of another 10 years before it’s dead. RIP GOP.

    1. Watching CPAC, I find your comment to be on point! They act like they enjoy losing!

      And the media has, already, chosen their darlings. Rand is not one of them!

  24. Long shot Sullum? It was impossible with 49 libertarian Republicans on the House allied with Democrats on the issue.

    Simon

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.