By Mike DeBonis and Aaron C. Davis,
Republican members of a House Oversight subcommittee sharply questioned the District’s move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana Friday but did not indicate they would move to overturn the legislation passed by District lawmakers this spring.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the panel’s chair, said he was “not here to negate District law” but doubted whether the city’s law would address its stated goal of reducing racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
“There’s no question there’s disparity in prosecutions when it comes to blacks,” he 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.”
Mica said he remained concerned that marijuana use would remain a “gateway” to other drugs and other crimes, and a fellow Republican, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, said he rejected the suggestion that marijuana should be treated more like alcohol.
“Marijuana is different,” said Fleming, a medical doctor, who said the District’s decriminalization law could have dramatic public health implications.
Friday’s hearing on the D.C. Council’s recent vote to remove criminal penalties for some marijuana offenses came amid warnings that it could be a first step toward Congress overturning the measure.
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.
Mica said “no decision has been made” on whether Congress will seek to contest the law and said in an interview after the hearing that he wanted to hear more testimony, particularly on the potency and medical effects of marijuana.
For much of the morning, the hearing focused on how the law will affect local and federal prosecution of drug-related crimes and potential complications with enforcement of marijuana possession on federal land in the District.
Under the measure passed by the council, possession would have the smallest fine outside of Colorado and Washington state, where pot has been legalized for recreational use, and Alaska, which has no monetary 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.
On the Mall and other federal property, however, possession would remain a federal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
Federal law enforcement 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 — either to permit the medicinal use of marijuana, to decriminalize possession or to legalize it entirely.
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.
The acting chief of the U.S. Park Police, Robert MacLean, said his agency said it will work with the District’s U.S. attorney to “determine our future enforcement options.” The Park Police, which patrols much of the Mall area, logged 500 marijuana “incidents” in the nation’s capital last year, but the agency has not specified how many of those resulted in arrests and prosecutions.
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.
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. A March hearing included testimony from the U.S. attorney for Colorado.
The D.C. measure was signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who decided not to attend the hearing himself. Instead, he sent Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham, who offered brief testimony summarizing the new law. In an earlier interview, Newsham said the department’s job was to enforce the law, not question it.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has been more confrontational. Testifying before Mica on Friday, she said it was inappropriate for the House to hold a hearing on only the District’s law when “18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized marijuana.”
In an interview, Norton said she doubted House Republicans would move directly to overturn the city law. But she said 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.
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