Republican members of a House Oversight subcommittee sharply questioned the District’s move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana Friday but gave only tentative indications that they might try to overturn the legislation.
While city officials and autonomy advocates decried the hearing — the first one solely devoted to a local D.C. law in over a decade, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — it demonstrated that conservative federal lawmakers are increasingly unwilling to intervene in the liberal District’s local policymaking.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the panel’s chairman, began the hearing with a reminder of Congress’s constitutional authority over District affairs before wielding a mock joint. But he later said he was “not here to negate District law” and was noncommittal on whether he or his colleagues would take action against the marijuana measure.
A fellow Republican, Rep. John Fleming (La.), said he had grave concerns about the public health implications of decriminalizing marijuana. But he said after the hearing that he was “still on a fact-finding process” and had no immediate plans to pursue the necessary legislation to block the local law.
A third Republican who attended the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), did not ask any questions or make any comments about the D.C. marijuana laws, instead using his time to interrogate a top Justice Department official about wholly unrelated allegations of Internal Revenue Service wrongdoing.
Friday’s hearing came amid warnings that it could be a first step toward Congress overturning the D.C. Council’s vote in March to remove criminal penalties for some marijuana offenses.
The decriminalization law is now amid a congressional review period that is expected to lapse in mid-July. Overturning the law during that period would require the passage of legislation by both the House and Senate, as well as President Obama’s signature.
That prospect is remote, most observers agree. But Norton said she feared the hearing could create an “echo effect,” leading members to propose appropriations riders that could be attached to the District’s budget in the coming months.
Still, the partisan gridlock that has kept Congress from acting on major national issues such as immigration reform has worked in the District’s favor, making it exceedingly difficult for foes of city policies to take action against them. For instance, the controversial initiative approved in a voter referendum last year granting the District greater budgetary autonomy from Congress is now being challenged in the courts, not on Capitol Hill.
But the gridlock has not stopped some members from asking questions. Friday’s hearing was the third in a series titled “Mixed Signals: The Administration’s Policy on Marijuana,” held by Mica’s subcommittee on government operations.
The hearing was unique in being solely focused on the District’s law, which drew criticism from Norton and local autonomy watchdogs. “They held the hearing not because they care about the substance of decriminalization, but because they could, because we have this antiquated local-federal relationship,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Vote.
Fleming, a medical doctor who is deeply skeptical of marijuana liberalization, acknowledged that the District’s unique status piqued his interest in its drug laws. “I don’t have a say-so in state law other than lobbying my own representatives,” he said. “The only place I have a voice is in Washington, and whenever I have an opportunity, I’m going to use that platform to make a stand.”
During the hearing, Mica doubted whether the city’s law would address its stated goal of reducing racial disparities in marijuana arrests, expressing concerns that marijuana use would remain a “gateway” to other drugs and other crimes.
“I’m not sure that changing the law in the District of Columbia is going to benefit that population that much,” he said.
The D.C. law was passed partly in response to two studies of law enforcement records in the District, which found that nine out of 10 arrests for simple drug possession were of African Americans, even though academic reports suggest marijuana use among teens and young adults is not statistically different across race or class. The American Civil Liberties Union testified Friday about those stark racial, economic and geographic divides.
The bulk of the hearing, however, focused on how the law will affect prosecutions of drug-
related crimes and potential complications with enforcement of marijuana possession on federal land in the District.
Under the city measure, conviction of possession would carry the smallest fine after Colorado and Washington state, where pot has been legalized for recreational use, and Alaska, which has no fine.
The District’s 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, similar to a violation of the city’s open-container laws for alcohol, punishable by up to 60 days in jail.
Possession would remain a criminal offense under federal law, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
Federal authorities who testified Friday remained vague in their intentions regarding the local decriminalization law.
David A. O’Neil, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said the District would be treated similarly to the more than a dozen states that have liberalized their local marijuana laws through medical marijuana programs, decriminalization or outright legalization.
Under existing Justice Department guidelines, federal law enforcement efforts are to be focused on eight explicit priorities, which do not include prosecuting individuals who possess small amounts of marijuana for their own use.
Robert MacLean, acting chief of the U.S. Park Police, said his agency will work with the District’s federal prosecutor to “determine our future enforcement options.”
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said that when presented with marijuana possession cases investigated by federal law enforcement agencies, prosecutors will “assess each case on an individualized basis.”
That will involve “weighing all available information and evidence, consistent with Justice Department enforcement priorities and the need to use our limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats to public safety,” said the spokesman, William Miller.
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.