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Congress to Scrutinize DC’s Marijuana Decriminalization Law

A handy guide to what Friday's hearing means for marijuana reform efforts.
Photograph via Shutterstock.

It was probably too much to hope that the District government could adopt a drug reform law without Congress sticking its beak in. And Friday, that’s exactly what will happen when DC’s recent marijuana decriminalization legislation goes before a Republican-led House Oversight subcommittee. Mayor Vince Gray signed the bill in March, although it is subject to 60 days of congressional review—double the usual 30-day period because it alters the city’s criminal laws—and it now appears that it will not be completely ignored by the Hill. So, just what exactly is going on with marijuana decriminalization right now? 

Why is this hearing even happening?

Officially, the House Oversight Committee says tomorrow’s hearing is the third installment in a series of hearings on federal marijuana policy. The hearings are titled “Mixed Signals,” presumably to highlight the difference between federal laws—which classify marijuana as a narcotic on par with heroin and LSD—and an increasing number of states and cities that have taken more relaxed stances on weed. The first hearing tackled Washington state and Colorado, where marijuana is now fully legalized; the second one dealt with the Obama Administration’s reluctance to override local marijuana regulations in places with medical cannabis or decriminalization statutes; and now the District gets an episode to itself.

Who’s calling the shots here and what do they hope to accomplish?

Credit goes Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican, for scheduling this hearing. Mica and his colleagues are intent on figuring out how DC decriminalizing marijuana would comport with federal law. While Colorado hasn’t devolved into a 19th-century opium den, the District is a bit different because its criminal laws are prosecuted by federal attorneys, not local ones. “Though there are many parallels to the situation in states like Colorado, the District of Columbia utilizes the Federal Court systems for prosecuting many offenses and an array of law enforcement agencies maintain a significant presence due to the footprint of the Federal government in our nation’s capital,” Becca Glover Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Oversight Committee, recently told Roll Call.

And how do DC officials feel about this?

Council member Tommy Wells, who sponsored the decriminalization bill, did not respond for requests for comment on tomorrow’s hearing, and Gray’s administration is trying to stay above the fray. But Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is testifying at tomorrow’s hearing, and she’s not very happy about it.

“We resent that this hearing is being held, considering that 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, and that at the subcommittee’s other two hearings on marijuana policy, no local or state official was called,” Norton said Tuesday.

And Norton’s colleagues can expect her to bash them in person tomorrow. “Republicans say they support limiting the federal government’s power and devolving that power to states and localities,” she writes in her prepared testimony. “This hearing does the opposite. We will defend the city’s marijuana decriminalization bill against any and all attempts to overturn or block it.”

Who else is testifying?

Although nobody from Gray’s office plans to show up, the city government will be represented in the form of Assistant Chief Peter Newsham of the Metropolitan Police Department, which has been less than supportive on marijuana decriminalization. During the Council’s hearings on the bill, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier told legislators she believed the bill would have a minimal impact on crime rates and that she worried decriminalization would lead to more people driving while blazed. Lanier also encouraged the passage of an amendment that keeps public marijuana use a criminal offense.

Also on Friday’s docket is Acting Chief of US Park Police Robert MacLean, whose jurisdiction includes all the federal parks where the decriminalization bill would not apply (for example, it would still be a crime to spark up beneath the Dupont Circle fountain); Assistant US Attorney General David O’Neil; and Seema Sadanandan, the program director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU kicked off the push for decriminalization last year when it released a report showing that in DC, black residents are eight times as likely as white residents to be arrested for marijuana, even though there is no difference in the rates of use.

Just for the record, what would be decriminalized in DC?

Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would no longer be an arrestable offense, instead meriting a $25 fine. Smoking it in public, growing, and selling would still be against the law and punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

So, is DC’s law going to get bulldozed?

After all the noise, probably not. The District’s decriminalization law is weak relative to others passed elsewhere in the country, and still a long way off from full legalization. Overruling city legislation requires an act passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, which has only happened three times in the 40-year history of home rule.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.