As the Washington Post noted in an editorial last week, Congress has put the District in a difficult spot over marijuana legalization. While District voters overwhelmingly backed legalization through Initiative 71 in 2014, Congress has continued to prohibit the District from using its current fiscal year appropriation to enact the needed regulatory regime. A consequence of this prohibition was evident in the D.C. Council’s narrow vote last Tuesday against lifting the ban on using marijuana outside the home in private clubs.
We agree that the Council needs to proceed carefully and deliberatively with a comprehensive plan for dealing with legalized marijuana. Doing so will not only advance the will of the people as reflected in Initiative 71, but it will address the black markets and “wild west” situation we have now. It will also resolve the kind of uncertainties the Council addressed last week and will furthermore allow the city to gain the tax revenue resulting from regulated sales.
As we’ve said before, there’s a way the District can do all this without violating the fiscal year restrictions imposed by Congress. All the District needs to do is draw on dollars in its substantial contingency reserve fund to pay for the needed development and enactment of legislation regulating the buying and selling of marijuana. Doing so would easily meet the standards for using the reserve fund, and nothing in Congress’s current restrictions prohibits the District from using those funds for that purpose.
In fact, the District did something comparable a little over two years ago when it drew on its reserve funds to keep the city open even though Congress shut down the federal government and had not yet appropriated funds to the District, allowing it to stay open. The then-D.C. Attorney General endorsed the legal basis of this use of the reserve funds, and importantly, Congress accepted it.
It’s time to do the same thing to allow the District to decide on a well-thought-out plan for regulating marijuana sale and use. Such an undertaking would not be costly, and would require only a small expenditure from the contingency reserves, which held $222 million at the CFO’s last report. In fact, it seems likely that the resulting tax revenues would more than pay for the cost of enacting the plan.
Enacting such a plan is not only the responsible thing to do, but it also honors the vote of the people. We hope the District does it soon.