D.C. Pot Decriminalization Law Fires Up Debate in Congress

Lawmakers discuss 'faux libertarians' and whether the district is allowed to be a laboratory of democracy.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., holds a fake hand-rolled joint during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., holds a fake hand-rolled joint during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Friday in Washington, D.C.

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A House of Representatives subcommittee reviewed a law Friday that would reduce penalties for marijuana possession in Washington, D.C.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., presided over the hearing and repeatedly brandished a fake joint as he asked officials how the nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies operating in the nation's capital would be affected if Congress allows the law to be implemented.

“No decision has been made yet about whether Congress will contest or attempt to overturn the district law that has been passed,” Mica said at the end of the hearing, an apparent departure from his earlier assertion that “no one is here to negate the district law, we are looking at the implications and the enforcement regime.”

If Congress doesn’t step in, the law will likely take effect in July. It would reduce penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana from six months in jail and a $1,000 fine to a $25 fine with no criminal record. Police still would confiscate the drug if the law is enacted.

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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Government Operations hosted the Friday review.

During the hearing, Mica described pot as “a gateway narcotic” and expressed concern about drugged driving, pot's effect on brain chemistry, the fact that 22 percent of district land is federally owned and the purported impacts the law would have on visitors to the District of Columbia. 

Responding to prehearing criticism from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Mica quoted the Constitution, affirming Congress’ right to oversee local affairs in the district.

“The District of Columbia is not a state, it is not a territory, it is not a possession. It is a federal district,” he said.

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A noticeably annoyed Norton said she appeared in protest and relayed that district Mayor Vincent Gray and members of the D.C. Council will refuse to testify about the law or supply for future hearings city officials involved with implementing it.

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., was the most fervent critic of liberalizing marijuana laws at the hearing. He accused many marijuana reformers of being “faux libertarians” – wanting personal freedom to get high, but also a government safety net to pay for pot-related health problems.

“The public has never accepted marijuana as a part of our culture,” Fleming said. “I know that that seems to be changing, but I think we can turn it back in time to prevent that from inculcating itself into our culture.”

A spokesman for Fleming did not immediately return a request for comment about whether he will introduce legislation to block the law.

Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., were more sympathetic to reform. Massie said he was disturbed by racial arrest disparities and Cohen said the district could be a “laboratory of democracy,” with the added benefit of educating federal lawmakers who live in the city.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, briefly hijacked the meeting to grill David O’Neil, acting assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice's Criminal Division, about the department's investigation of IRS officials who targeted political groups.

O’Neil and Robert MacLean, acting chief of the U.S. Park Police, said enforcement of federal laws against marijuana will continue if the decriminalization law takes effect. Park Police will continue to be able to enforce federal laws in any part of the city, MacLean said. Federal penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana are up to one year in prison and/or a fine of $1,000.

[CHARTS: ACLU Breaks Down Demographics of Pot Busts]

Seema Sadanandan, program director of the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told lawmakers that 93 percent of marijuana arrests in the district in 2010 were performed by the city’s Metropolitan Police Department and that fewer than 3 percent of arrests were on federal land – suggesting implementation of the law might not result in legal chaos.

According to an ACLU report, more than 90 percent of people arrested in the district for marijuana possession in 2010 were black. The district had a higher per capita marijuana arrest rate than any of the 50 states that year. Sadanandan said decriminalization would reduce the disproportionate impact of marijuana laws on African-American residents.

“The justification for decriminalizing marijuana is made on the basis of racial disparities, that’s the only real argument I heard,” Fleming said toward the end of the hearing. He asked rhetorically if penalties for murder and car theft should also be softened because of racial disparities.

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“I’m not certain that changing the penalty in the District of Columbia is going to benefit that [black] population that much,” Mica chimed in. “Unfortunately marijuana, Ms. Sadanandan, becomes a gateway narcotic.”

Although the national mood on marijuana has shifted dramatically – with several polls showing majority support nationwide for outright legalization – Congress has a legacy of blocking marijuana reform in the district.