Pot legalization faces uncertain future in Washington

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Anastasia Stepanova of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign holds a sign during Tuesday's election in Washington, D.C. Residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalizing marijuana.

Although residents of Washington voted overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing marijuana this week — a move that could put penalty-free pot within an hour's drive of Baltimore — the ballot initiative faces an uncertain future.

The measure, which would make it legal for people over 21 to possess 2 ounces of marijuana and grow up to three plants, has triggered some concern on Capitol Hill and among Maryland authorities.


On election night, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris immediately vowed to fight the measure in Congress, which must approve such laws in the nation's capital.

"The federal government should enforce federal law, regardless of whether local citizens try to legalize marijuana," the Baltimore County Republican said. "I will consider using all resources available to a member of Congress to stop this action, so that drug use among teens does not increase."


Washington could join Colorado and Washington state, which approved legalization in 2012, as well as Alaska and Oregon, which voted in favor of the move Tuesday, as states weigh the liberalization of drug laws.

In Maryland, advocates who see marijuana as no more harmful than alcohol and tobacco hope that having legal marijuana in D.C. helps their cause. Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, are wary of a nearby haven for what remains an illegal drug in Maryland.

Campaigners for legalization in Washington were jubilant this week. "This victory is dedicated to everyone still sitting in jail tonight because of marijuana prohibition," Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, said in a statement.

But they do not expect the measure to be submitted to Congress — a crucial step because the District of Columbia does not have the autonomy of a state — until next year, when Republicans will control the House of Representatives and the Senate.

There is further uncertainty in Washington because the ballot initiative did not create a system for selling or taxing marijuana. Muriel Bowser, Washington's mayor-elect, said she supports legalization and setting up a way to legally sell the drug but added that she would not want to see the ballot initiative go into effect without those laws in place.

"I see no reason why we wouldn't follow a regime similar to how we regulate and tax alcohol," she said at a news conference this week.

Bowser said she's ready to work with Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's nonvoting delegate to the House, to ensure that Congress respects the will of district voters.

District officials have clashed with Harris over marijuana before. In June, he proposed a measure that would prohibit Washington from using federal money or its own funds to implement decriminalization of marijuana.


The effort failed — but not until some marijuana advocates threatened a boycott of resorts in Harris' district, which includes the Eastern Shore. In Washington, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is now punishable by a fine of $25.

Law enforcement officials in Maryland say they'll be watching how things unfold in Washington.

Havre de Grace Police Chief Teresa Walter, who is president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said legalization could have an impact on Maryland, citing concerns in states that border Colorado.

At a September hearing, for example, Nebraska authorities said they had seen a dramatic spike in potency of marijuana and a marked increase in the number of teens ticketed for possession. The state's attorney general said he "wouldn't rule out" taking Colorado to court over Nebraska's increased law enforcement costs related to marijuana.

Regardless of the laws in D.C., Walter said, people who travel outside "have to comply with [the laws] we have here in the state of Maryland."

She also said Maryland authorities are still trying to adapt to the state's decriminalization law. Walter said they have "a lot of concerns, a lot of questions still unanswered" about the law passed by the General Assembly this year.


Maryland moved toward a softer stance on marijuana with a law removing criminal penalties for possession of up to 10 grams. But it left intact penalties for drug paraphernalia and criminal sanctions for any amount larger than 10 grams.

Some prosecutors have looked at the new law as blessing for an even more lenient policy on marijuana. For example, Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy has said he plans to treat possession of even larger amounts of pot as civil offenses if they appear to be for personal recreational use.

And despite law enforcement officials' assertion that they will enforce Maryland's drug laws, experts said that if Washington establishes a way to sell the drug, some difficult legal questions could arise. What should happen, for example, when officers stop someone with marijuana legally purchased over the border?

"There are going to be very uncomfortable legal confrontations," said Eric E. Sterling, president of the educational Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "There will be a lot of people who I think in that situation will be really indignant."

On the other hand, Sterling said, lawmakers might also start to look at the tax revenue Washington generates from marijuana sales and decide they'd like a slice of it, nudging them toward legalization.

Maryland officials already are developing regulations for legalized medical marijuana, which has been authorized by the legislature.


Other supporters of legal marijuana in Maryland are optimistic that the district's experiment will provide a nearby test case — one that will be more difficult to ignore than those in Colorado and Washington state.

Said Sara Love, the public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland branch, "It's that much harder when it's up on your border."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and John Fritze contributed to this article.