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Washington mayor: Despite legal pot, city will not become 'like Amsterdam' (w/video)

Published Feb. 25, 2015

WASHINGTON — Washington's city leaders warned the public Tuesday that when marijuana possession is allowed in the District of Columbia starting at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, many pot-related activities will remain illegal, including selling the drug, growing it outdoors, possessing it in federal housing and smoking it anywhere in public.

Offering their first public guidance on what Initiative 71 will mean and how it will be enforced since it passed overwhelmingly last fall, Mayor Muriel Bowser and police Chief Cathy Lanier described as many restrictions as allowances during their remarks to the D.C. Council.

Washington residents and visitors will be able to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, they said — a large sandwich bag's worth. Residents will also be able to cultivate the plant in their homes — up to six seedlings each and up to three plants to maturity. Marijuana paraphernalia, including pipes, bongs and rolling papers,will also be legal.

But profiting off the drug in almost any way, and lighting up anywhere outside a home — including restaurants and parked cars — will be forbidden. Bowser also proposed legislation to block the formation of a gray market for pot, such as proposed "cannabis clubs" with membership fees that could pay for open access to the drug.

"Residents spoke loud and clear when they voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia," Bowser said. The task now, she said, is "to implement in a safe, fair and transparent way."

Tangled in web of federal oversight, Washington's path to marijuana legalization has lurched forward since Initiative 71 passed in November. Instead of writing regulations on how the drug would be bought, sold, tracked and taxed — a process that took more than a year in Colorado and Washington state — the District of Columbia was quickly blocked from doing so by Congress. The city's own attorney general advised leaders that even talking about how to allow pot sales could result in jail time for them.

That warning, coupled with fear of provoking further interference from Congress, led leaders to say virtually nothing until Tuesday, little more than a day before pot is expected to become legal. And even then, instead of announcing a detailed set of rules or a gradual schedule of implementation, they mostly limited themselves to a narrow discussion of how they will enforce the law.

To emphasize the continued risk of carrying marijuana around the District, Lanier and other officials emphasized a catch-phrase to help people remember to keep pot inside: "Home use. Home grown."

D.C. police will encourage those who want to smoke and grow marijuana to do so out of sight. Police will ticket for lighting up anywhere in public and will continue to arrest anyone they can prove is trying to sell or purchase the drug.

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In addition, Bowser said she would ask the D.C. Council to approve emergency legislation to prohibit private clubs from following the model of Amsterdam coffee shops, where pot could be openly exchanged.

The move could rein in an expected free-for-all when the voter-approved measure takes effect. The mayor warned that the prohibition on pot clubs could be the first in a series of new laws she seeks to make sure legalized pot stays out of public view.

Some were immediately skeptical that the mayor could deliver on that promise.

"I don't think they can keep a lid on it," said Delroy Burton, president of the D.C. police officers union. "Our ability to do enforcement has been severely restricted."

Burton said that since last year, when D.C. eliminated criminal penalties for pot, it has become almost impossible for officers to develop reasonable suspicion for an arrest for smoking in public. And if pot clubs meet in private, he sees even less room for officers to investigate. "With the federal laws and local laws, they've created a mishmash of stuff here that makes it nearly impossible."

As if to support that point, Lanier said that D.C. police will stop ticketing adults for possession, which last year was downgraded to a civil offense instead of a criminal one in the city.

The department will also stop using the existence of up to two ounces of marijuana on a person, in a car or in a home as rationale for investigating other potential criminal behavior.

Police, however, will attempt to draw a bright line prohibiting public use, Lanier said.

Police will be instructed to continue ticketing or arresting for public smoking of marijuana, an offense akin to drinking in public, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The new law will also not affect the District's prohibition against driving under the influence of drugs, and anyone caught smoking marijuana in a car could face stiffer penalties, on par with those for driving while intoxicated.

The District, however, has no standard for how much marijuana constitutes driving while drugged, so assessing that will remain a judgment call for police, Lanier said.

The chief also said that smoking in public restaurants, clubs or anywhere else that the public is invited to enter will remain against the law.

D.C. will join Colorado, Washington state, and, just this week, Alaska, in legalizing marijuana. But the combination of Congress's unique oversight of the city and vast federal jurisdiction over much of the city means that legal pot could look very different in the nation's capital.

Congress, which has the power to review all city laws, could still intervene to block Initiative 71 from taking effect. Congressional leaders also could put a stop to the endeavor with a single sentence in a future budget.

Bowser's office declared unequivocally in a flier circulated Tuesday that the initiative will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Aides said they didn't speak sooner out of concern that spelling out plans for enforcement earlier could have provoked further congressional interference.

In the flier, which featured an outline of the District cast in green, the mayor sought to dispel worries that the District would be headed for an unregulated marketplace.

"Q. Is D.C. going to become like Amsterdam?" read one question.

"A. No, our law allows home use by adults 21 and over. Pot cafes are not permitted and neither is the sale of any amount of marijuana."

To the chagrin of proponents of Initiative 71 and its provisions for home cultivation, Lanier also said that it would be illegal to grow marijuana on balconies and rooftops and in back yards. Lanier said home cultivation of pot will be permitted only indoors.

Adam Eidinger, head of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, has lobbied for cultivation to be allowed in restricted outdoor areas of private residences, saying it would be safer and more environmentally friendly than home growers using powerful heat lights indoors.

In a question and answer session with members of the D.C. Council, Lanier also went further than what Initiative 71 spells out, saying that only two ounces per adult would be allowed at private residences. The initiative said that any pot harvested at home could remain there, which over time could far exceed two ounces.

Still, the police chief acknowledged that enforcing laws in private homes will remain a challenge, and the smell of marijuana or even complaints from neighbors may not be probable cause to enter a residence to investigate.

Similarly, the chief said smoking marijuana in federally subsidized public housing is not allowed — yet when residents are found to have marijuana, D.C. police officers will not arrest. Lanier added that federal officers and housing authority police might.

Lanier and Bowser also spoke at length about the complex challenges outdoors that will flow from the District legalizing marijuana in city with a checkerboard of federal land.

Although D.C. police will consider marijuana legal, more than two dozen federal law enforcement agencies that operate in the city will be bound by federal drug laws that make marijuana possession punishable by up to a year in jail.

Lanier said that federal officers who make minor marijuana possession arrests can still process prisoners at District police processing centers. District officers will not process the arrests.

The chief said that since decriminalization, federal officers have made 30 marijuana possession arrests. The mayor and attorney general are meeting in the next day or so to sort out how such cases will be handled by prosecutors.

Another wrinkle in the park-heavy District: The U.S. Park Police officers have jurisdiction throughout the District and are not strictly limited to federal land. Lanier said an agreement between agencies means Park Police will follow federal law on federal property and District law elsewhere.

"Knowing your geography is important," Lanier said. She said it should not be confusing for police, but it will be for residents. "The confusion is not on the enforcement side," the chief said.

D.C. police are beginning training for how to respond to the law, Lanier said, including training on what two ounces of pot looks and feels like. Officers, she said, would "not carry scales."

Officers are also being given wallet-sized business cards to hand out summarizing what is and isn't allowed, along with health advice and a number to a health hotline.

"You shouldn't use marijuana just because the local laws have changed," the card says.

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