City Desk

Everything You Need to Know Before Tomorrow’s House Hearing on D.C.’s Pot Decriminalization Law

A Republican-led House subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing Friday to examine D.C.'s recently passed legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Mayor Vince Gray signed the act in March, and the bill is subject to 60 days of congressional review before it can become a law in D.C. Which brings up some questions, like...

So why could Congress decide that a proposal passed by D.C.'s elected officials cannot become a law?

Every piece of legislation that the D.C. Council passes, including its budget, is subject to congressional approval. This review period typically passes without much fanfare, but marijuana decriminalization is controversial, and the proposal does clash with federal law. Florida Rep. John Micah, a Republican who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, called the hearing.

What's Mica hoping to accomplish?

A spokeswoman for the Oversight Committee told Roll Call that the hearing is an attempt to look at how to resolve discrepancies between federal marijuana laws and city and state marijuana laws. “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 foot print of the Federal government in our nation’s capital,” committee spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins wrote in an email to Roll Call.

What does this marijuana decriminalization law actually entail?

The bill, introduced by Councilmember Tommy Wells, would reduce the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of pot to a $25 fine. This only applies to private places. If you're smoking in public, it's still a crime. Complicating things further: The law would likely only apply to enforcement by the Metropolitan Police Department. A spokeswoman for the Park Police, which has jurisdiction over the National Mall and other National Park Service land in the District, told the Post that it would likely not follow D.C.'s law if it is enacted. Tomorrow's hearing should address these tensions.

The push for marijuana decriminalization in the District has been framed as a racial justice issue. An ACLU study released last June showed that black people accounted for 91 percent of all D.C. marijuana arrests, despite equal usage rates by white and black residents nationally.

What do D.C. officials think about this hearing?

In short, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton—the District's nonvoting member of Congress—is pissed. Norton said it would be appropriate for the subcommittee to more broadly examine marijuana laws that conflict with federal laws in all relevant jurisdictions, but that it shouldn't single out D.C. "It is inappropriate to hold a hearing on the local marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, when 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized marijuana," she said in a statement.  "There is nothing that distinguishes the District from these states except for Congress’s illegitimate power to overturn the democratically enacted local laws of the District."

Norton's testimony for Friday's hearing can be read here.

So is D.C.'s law doomed?

Even if the Republican-controlled Congress passes a resolution disapproving of the law, the Senate and president would still have to sign off on it. That's only happened three times since 1979.

Who is set to testify at Friday's hearing?

Norton will speak on a panel, but no local D.C. official—like the mayor or a councilmember—will testify. The others testifying include MPD Assistant Chief Peter Newsham; Acting Chief of U.S. Park Police Robert MacLean; the acting assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Department of Justice, David O'Neil; and the program director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital, Seema Sadanandan.

Marijuana photo by Shutterstock

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