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D.C. makes pot legal, with restrictions

The District of Columbia joined Colorado, Alaska and Washington state in legalizing recreational use and possession of marijuana. Federal law still outlaws the drug, however, putting the nation’s capital at the high-profile crossroads of both state and federal laws. Gwen Ifill talks to Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post to discuss the restrictions on the new law.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The use and possession of small amounts of marijuana became legal in the nation's capital today. Last November, voters overwhelmingly voted to allow possession of up to two ounces of the drug. The initiative wasn't as sweeping as in Colorado and Washington State, which legalized recreational use in 2012, or in Alaska, where cultivation and use became legal this week.

    But Washington, D.C., a federal jurisdiction with local laws, has run straight into the crossroads of the nation's drug debate. What's permissible? What's legal?

    For that, we turn to Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post.

    Mike, one of the interesting things about this particular law is that Congress, or at least some members of Congress, tried to stop it. Why is that?

  • MIKE DEBONIS, The Washington Post:

    Well, Gwen, thanks for having me on.

    Quite simply, there are certain members of Congress, almost all of them — all of them Republicans, most of them members of the House, who simply do not think that — that marijuana should be legally possessed and used in the nation's capital. And they took action to stop the District from moving forward with the law passed by its residents by attaching a piece of language to the funding bill passed by Congress in late December to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year this year.

    And what that language said is that no funds could be used by the District government to enact any measure that would liberalize marijuana laws in the District of Columbia. Now, there is a dispute between the Republicans who sponsored that language and voted for it and the city and Democratic members of Congress…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    … who say there's room within that language to allow what was passed by the voters in November to go forward.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, the — there was overwhelming passage of this. Seventy percent…

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    Seventy-one percent.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    … of District residents voted for it. And — but, in addition, last July, they decriminalized. If you — instead of going — paying — to jail, you just pay a fine if you are found in possession of weed.

    What is — is this a difference without a distinction?

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    I think, in a lot of ways, it is, but it is another step.

    I think it really is more of a big psychological distinction to say that marijuana is legal, we have legal marijuana possession and use in the District of Columbia vs. decriminalized. I think that, much as there is a big difference between civil unions, same-sex civil unions and same-sex manner for a lot of people, I think that there's a similar difference in the use of terminology, even if the practical effect is not very different.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk for a moment about the practical effect, because this law will allow people to possess small amounts, to grow, what, six plants at a time, but not to sell it, not to even smoke it outdoors.

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    That's right.

    The big catch is that, due to the timing of all of this, the fact that the referendum was passed in November, and then Congress put a halt to any further action in December, what you have is that the letter of the law that passed in that November referendum is now on the books. But the city is powerless to do anything to add, subtract, or modify what was in the referendum.

    So that means that they cannot establish a taxation regime, a regime to regulate the sales of marijuana. So what you have now is that people can have marijuana. They can smoke it. They can grow it on their own private premises. They can use it on their own private premises, but they cannot sell it. They cannot buy it. And it…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, how — I just want to — I'm curious where that puts the District of Columbia on the continuum of other jurisdictions which have moved to legalize marijuana. Is it less liberal, more liberal?

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    Yes, and almost it's hard to even put it on that continuum. It's really one of a kind. In some ways, it's more liberal.

    In the District, under this new law, you can have two ounces of marijuana, which is more than you can have legally at any one time in Washington or Colorado or Alaska. On the other hand, the fact that there's no legal sales or there's no legal public use in — public accommodations for using marijuana makes it more conservative than those other places.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And it is still a federal violation in a city that so much of its land is federal property…

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    That's right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    … to have or use or sell or exchange marijuana in any way, right?

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    That's right.

    And what's notable about that is that our local U.S. attorney here has said that he is basically going to treat the District much as the Justice Department has treated states that have liberalized their marijuana laws. They are going to follow the same guidance, which was contained in a memo issued by the Justice Department more than a year ago.

    Basically, what that means is, the Justice Department is sending the signal that they're not going to be concerned with enforcing federal marijuana laws, where local authorities aren't going to be concerned with enforcing their local laws.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One thing we know for sure, there will be no smoking — no pot smoking on, like, the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. None of that is going to happen.

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    And certainly not in the halls of Congress.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And certainly not in the halls of Congress.

    Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • MIKE DEBONIS:

    Thanks, Gwen.

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