WASHINGTON – A House panel brought into question the District of Columbia’s move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana last Friday, but did not make clear whether Congress will try to overturn the law.
The measure passed in a 10-1 vote by the D.C. Council on March 4. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed the bill a few weeks later.
The measure would make possession of up to an ounce subject to a civil citation carrying a fine of $25. Smoking marijuana in public would remain a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. Today, possession of marijuana in D.C. carries a penalty of incarceration of up to six months and a fine of not more than $1,000.
On federal property, however, possession would remain a federal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
As with any District law, the marijuana decriminalization act must be reviewed by Congress. In this case, the bill has to undergo a 60-day review period, given that it is a criminal law, wherein Congress could enact a joint resolution striking the measure down. To stop the bill from becoming a law, it would require the passage of legislation by both the House and Senate, and President Obama’s signature within the review period.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the panel’s chairman, expressed concern that the law would have larger implications.
“No one is here to negate the District law – we are looking at the implications and the enforcement regime with 26 different agencies responsible for enforcing different penalties,” Mica said at a House Oversight subcommittee hearing. The federal agencies responsible for law enforcement in the District include the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Secret Service, the Smithsonian police, and the U.S. Park Police.
Mica stressed that Congress was well within its rights to review the law, providing several reasons the committee was taking up the issue.
“More than 20 percent of D.C. is federal land and it is in fact unclear as to how the D.C. decriminalization will effect marijuana possession and consumption on federal land,” he said.
He said Congress also had a responsibility to the millions of American tourists who visit the city every year.
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting House delegate, said it was inappropriate for the committee to question a local law approved by elected representatives.
“This is the first time that I remember that there has been a hearing in Congress on a purely local matter,” Norton said. “My hope is that my colleagues, regardless of their views or those of their constituents on marijuana, will respect the decisions of all jurisdictions that have decriminalized marijuana, including the District of Columbia.”
“Six or seven states in the United States have most of their land to be federal land, and yet this committee does not claim that this presents a particular problem in the enforcement of local laws which may differ from federal laws,” Norton added.
Seventeen states have decriminalized marijuana to some degree, and 21 states and D.C. have approved marijuana for medical use. Two states, Washington and Colorado, have legalized and started regulating the drug for recreational use.
The Home Rule Act of 1973 “requires that the District be treated like states and other jurisdictions except for a small number of enumerated exceptions,” Norton said. “Plainly, the District’s marijuana policy is not such an exception, and is no more inconsistent with federal law than similar laws in the 17 states that decriminalized marijuana before the District did.”
David O’Neil, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said the District would be treated similarly to the other states that have liberalized their local marijuana laws. This means the local U.S. attorney will have significant discretion in handling cases, while the Justice Department will continue to focus on eight enforcement priorities that include large-scale drug trafficking, distribution to minors, and marijuana possession or use on federal property.
Peter Newsham, the Metropolitan Police Department’s assistant chief, emphasized to the committee that the District’s liberal marijuana law will not stop them from “[sending] the message, especially to [young] people, of marijuana’s dangers…[and] to discourage them from using it.”
Newsham said the full impact of the law would be hard to predict.
“Arrests for possession will likely decrease,” he said. “But whether or not enforcement action [on more serious drug offenses] will be taken is hard to say.”
Acting U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean said his agency will work closely with D.C.’s U.S. attorney to “determine our future options, especially if the person is on federal land and acts in violation of National Park Service regulation.”
Between 2010 and 2012, about 55 percent of U.S. Park Police arrests on marijuana charges in the D.C. metropolitan area occurred on federal parklands within the District, McLean said. The majority of these arrests were for simple possession.
The bill passed in response to recent studies by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that about 90 percent of those arrested for possession in the District were black.
Seema Sadanandan, program director at the Washington ACLU, said black people are 8 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in the District even though these groups use marijuana at roughly equal rates.
Republican members of the subcommittee, however, questioned whether the law would actually have an effect on racial disparity.
“There’s no question there’s disparity in prosecutions when it comes to blacks,” Mica said. “And that’s wrong…. But I’m not sure that changing the law in the District of Columbia is going to benefit that population that much.”
The bulk of the hearing focused on how the law will affect prosecutions of drug-related crimes and potential complications with enforcement of marijuana possession on federal land in D.C.
The hearing, however, failed to clear up potential conflicts between District and federal law.
Asked if a person carrying marijuana on both federal and city land would be arrested under the new law, MacLean said yes. Newsham said no.
Friday’s hearing was the third in a series titled “Mixed Signals: The Administration’s Policy on Marijuana” examining the impact that state marijuana laws have had on federal law. The March hearing included testimony from the U.S. attorney for Colorado.