April 29

A CONGRESSIONAL subcommittee is planning a hearing on the District’s recent move to decriminalize marijuana as part of a “broader examination” of the issue. We agree that the growing tension between federal marijuana laws and laws in many local jurisdictions merits a national discussion. But, like D.C. officials, we are wary that the District is being singled out and that the interests of local residents again could fall victim to congressional interference.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations is set to hold a hearing next month on a bill passed by the D.C. Council and signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) that eliminates criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. No sooner had word leaked out about the hearing than Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wondered why there was congressional interest in The District and not in the 18 states that have decriminalized marijuana. “This is a local issue,” Mr. Gray said at an April 23 news conference,“They’re not having hearings on any laws in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, are they?” No, nor on Maryland, where lawmakers took steps to decriminalize marijuana about the same time as the District.

What distinguishes D.C. from these other jurisdictions, as Ms. Norton said in a statement, is “Congress’s illegitimate power to overturn the democratically enacted local laws of the District.” The decriminalization act is undergoing a 60-day legislative review and will take effect at the end of that period unless disapproved by Congress and the president. The last time a local law was overturned was in 1991, but Congress could use policy riders on appropriations bills to block implementation of the law, as it did with D.C. laws on medical marijuana and abortions for low-income women.

A spokeswoman for the subcommittee pointed to a March 4 hearing in which the U.S. attorney for Colorado testified about enforcement of federal drug laws in a state where marijuana is now legal as evidence of the larger inquiry being conducted, as The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported. It’s unclear who was invited or who will testify at the D.C. hearing, tentatively set for May 8. We hope the subcommittee will be interested in why the District took this action: racial disparities and ruined lives that go with criminal penalties for a small amount of pot. Even better, the legislators might better spend their time bringing federal drug laws into line with the growing number of states that have eliminated criminal penalties.