WASHINGTON — If Congress allows a District of Columbia law to take effect that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and someone with one foot on the National Mall and another foot on city property is caught carrying the drug, would that person be charged with a crime under federal law?
That was just one of the questions raised in a congressional hearing on Friday examining the potential complications of relaxing marijuana laws in a city controlled by Congress and policed both by federal and local law enforcement agencies.
The hearing, held by a House oversight subcommittee, included testimony from senior officers of the Metropolitan Police Department and the United States Park Police, as well as from representatives of the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Decriminalizing marijuana may help reduce the number of people with arrest records for possession of small amounts of marijuana, said Peter Newsham, the district’s assistant chief of police, “which may enable them to more easily find gainful employment.”
The measure would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense subject to a $25 fine. Today, the same offense is a misdemeanor with potential jail time and a fine of up to $1,000.
The bill passed in a 10-to-1 vote by the City Council on March 4. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, signed the bill a few weeks later. The city acted after recent studies by civil rights groups showed that roughly 90 percent of those arrested for possession in the district were black. Mr. Gray did not attend Friday’s congressional hearing. “The mayor doesn’t think they should be having a hearing strictly on the District of Columbia,” his spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said.
Seventeen states have decriminalized marijuana to some degree, and 21 states and the District of Columbia have approved marijuana for medical use. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized and begun regulating the drug for recreational use.
The hearing was the third on the deepening conflicts caused by differences in federal and local marijuana laws, but it was the only one focused on legislation in one local government.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate in the House, said it was inappropriate for the committee to question a local law approved overwhelmingly by elected representatives.
“This is the first time that I can remember that there has been a hearing in Congress on a purely local matter,” Ms. Norton testified.
The committee’s chairman, Representative John Mica, Republican of Florida, listed several reasons the committee was taking up the issue. Federal land makes up more than 20 percent of the district, he said, and the city is patrolled by numerous federal law enforcement officers in addition to the local police. He said the committee also had a responsibility to the millions of American tourists who flock to the city every year.
Mr. Mica pointed out that under a 1973 law, Congress has the authority to review laws passed by the city government for 60 congressional business days.
“I’m not here to negate the district law,” he said, adding that “no decision has been made on whether Congress will attempt to overturn the law that has been passed.”
The hearing had some light moments. At one point, Mr. Mica held up a mock marijuana cigarette to make a point that an ounce of marijuana is equivalent to about 20 cigarettes.
“Did you roll that?” a member of the panel asked.
“No, I had staff do it,” Mr. Mica said, drawing laughter. “They have more experience.”
Unless both chambers of Congress act to stop the District of Columbia law, it will take effect in mid-July.
For now, the hearing appears to have done little to clear up potential conflicts between district and federal law.
Asked if that hypothetical person carrying marijuana on both federal and city land would be arrested under the new law, the acting chief of the United States Park Police, Robert MacLean, said yes. Mr. Newsham, the assistant chief of the city force, said no.
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