D.C. Marijuana Bill Faces Congressional Scrutiny
Policy + Politics

D.C. Marijuana Bill Faces Congressional Scrutiny

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Congressional lawmakers opposed to the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana have a new punching bag: the nation’s capital.

A Republican-controlled House panel with jurisdictional oversight of Washington, D.C.’s government will hold a hearing next week to examine legislation recently signed by the city’s Democratic mayor that would decriminalize marijuana. The measure, passed 10-1 in March by the city council, would impose a civil fine of $25 for marijuana possession of 1 ounce or less.

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Proponents of the D.C. measure cite figures showing a disproportionate amount of black residents are arrested for marijuana possession compared with white residents in the city. Those same supporters are now worried that Congress will interfere with and possibly overturn the legislation.

“The hearing on D.C.’s decriminalization legislation is a unique and inappropriate overreach by Congress, targeting the marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction in a hearing before a national legislature,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said this week in a statement. “We will insist on our rights as a local jurisdiction to be treated in the same way as the 18 states that have decriminalized marijuana and the two that have legalized marijuana.”

Norton is scheduled to testify at next week’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Relations, chaired by Rep. John Mica (R-FL). The panel held similar hearings regarding marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington and how those state laws conflict with federal statutes. What makes the D.C. hearing different is that Congress can actually do something about the city’s pending decriminalization law.

Under what’s known as the Home Rule Act, passed by Congress in 1973, Congress has 60 days to review measures approved by the D.C. City Council and approved by its mayor. Overturning a bill requires both chambers of Congress to pass a joint resolution that in turn needs to be signed by the president. Three joint resolutions have been passed, the last in 1991.

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Congress also has the authority to determine how D.C. spends its own funds, and it did so in 1998 when it blocked a medical marijuana program, as well as needle-exchange programs during the past decade.

With the midterm elections coming in November, the hearing provides lawmakers on both sides of the aisle another opportunity to show where they stand on the marijuana issue. If proceedings to disapprove of the D.C. legislation move forward, those same politicians can back up their positions with a congressional vote.

The measure, which still criminalizes public use of marijuana, is considered by many advocates of decriminalization to serve as a model for other states and jurisdictions. The hearing will provide an opportunity for opponents to challenge that model.

“Though there are many parallels to the situation in states like Colorado, the District of Columbia utilizes the Federal Court systems for prosecuting many offenses and an array of law enforcement agencies maintain a significant presence due to the foot print of the Federal government in our nation's capital,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “How will these agencies enforce the law? The Committee continues to examine these unique factors as part of its broader examination of tension between federal and local marijuana laws in many jurisdictions.”

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Mayor Vincent Gray (D) signed the marijuana decriminalization bill on May 31 and it was submitted to Congress on April 8. Barring any changes to the congressional calendar, failure to pass a joint resolution would mean the bill becomes law on July 18.

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