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If D.C. Decriminalizes Marijuana, Will Congress’ Reaction Be a Buzz Kill?

The District appears ready to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, with supporters confident that Capitol Hill would not stand in the way of their effort, despite the prolonged pot-related policy fights of the past.

“It seems like the mood in Congress is less government intervention into people’s lives,” said Councilmember Tommy Wells, a Democrat who represents Capitol Hill. “I don’t see them trying to stop this, I really don’t.”

Wells, who is running for mayor, wants to reduce the charge for being caught with small amounts of marijuana deemed for personal use from criminal to civil. Under a measure he helped to draft, possession of less than 1 ounce would no longer be punishable by six months of jail time and a $1,000 fine. Offenders would instead face a $100 fine, with no damage to their record.

Congress thwarted D.C.’s last effort to change pot policy — a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana — for more than a decade. But the Justice Department’s hands-off approach to state drug laws, including Colorado’s and Washington’s recent moves to liberalize marijuana policy, gives the District’s decriminalization advocates hope.

“This is a national issue, it’s not just a D.C. issue, and so I feel confident that it will create an opportunity for local congressional representatives to watch D.C. try to grapple and solve this,” Wells told CQ Roll Call.

If the law is passed by the council and signed by Mayor Vincent Gray, it would head to Congress, where it would undergo a 60-day review period during which anti-marijuana members could vote to prevent decriminalization in the nation’s capital.

Councilmember Marion Barry, who helped draft the bill, thinks an effort to overturn the measure is highly unlikely. Since passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973, Congress has largely allowed local legislation to stand.

However, critics have other methods of blocking local bills from becoming law.

Fifteen years ago, former Rep. Bob Barr attached a rider to the District’s appropriations bill to forbid medical marijuana legalization. The Georgia Republican, who is currently campaigning to return to Congress, has since changed his tune, but the Barr amendment had long-lasting influence on the city’s drug policy. Democrats lifted it in 2009, under the leadership of Rep. José E. Serrano of New York.

“No, no, no,” Barry told CQ Roll Call when asked if he foresees Congress attaching a rider to its next must-pass bill.

Decriminalization could pose an interesting legal dilemma on the Capitol campus, where the Capitol Police have the authority to enforce both D.C. Code and U.S. Code. The department declined to comment on pending legislation.

Wells believes the bill has bipartisan appeal.

“There are states where a lot of conservative congressmen and senators come from that are concerned about the costs of imprisonment, and they’re trying to get people out of prison who don’t need to be there,” Wells said.

Proponents point to a study released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed the District of Columbia had a higher marijuana arrest rate per capita than any of the 50 states, and that black residents are eight times more likely to be taken into custody than white residents.

“The expense and time required to arrest and prosecute people for simply possessing marijuana is a significant drain on the energies of our police and our courts,” Wells said during an Oct. 24 hearing that drew more than 25 witnesses.

Civil liberties groups, community members, legalization advocates and lawyers testified, largely in support of the bill, which has the backing of 10 out of 13 councilmembers.

Gray has also indicated he could support decriminalization, citing scientific research that finds marijuana no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco and the public’s shifting attitude towards pot. Taking a popular stance on the issue could be a smart political move for the mayor, who has not yet announced whether he will run for re-election in 2014.

“According to recent research, almost 75 percent of District residents support decriminalization of small amounts, and 58 percent of all Americans in a poll just this week support some kind of reform,” said Andrew Fois, a deputy in the D.C. attorney general’s office who spoke on behalf of the Gray administration. Fois also outlined tweaks to the measure Gray would like to see, including keeping in place penalties for distribution on school grounds, clarifying that smoking marijuana is limited to private property and making sure fines are enforceable.

Dissenting arguments came from youth advocates, religious leaders and a 10-year-old boy who sat patiently through four hours of testimony before taking a seat in front of the council in a suit and tie.

“Sometimes I can’t even go outside and play on our playground because teenagers and other people are smoking weed out there like they don’t even care about the children playing,” said LaDeveon Butler. He later held a hand-drawn cartoon up for the chamber’s camera that depicted a pot-smoking youth steadily losing IQ points.

Other witnesses at the hearing questioned how decriminalization might conflict with medical marijuana policies currently on the books. The city’s tightly controlled medical marijuana dispensaries have been operating for three months. Washington state is currently struggling to balance its medical marijuana system with the new recreational market the public approved via ballot initiative last year.

Some also testified in support of a measure from Councilmember David Grosso that goes a step further toward liberalizing drugs in the District.

The independent councilman is co-sponsoring the decriminalization bill, but he has also introduced a separate proposal to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. He believes it is the best method to combat the racial disparity in arrest rates.

“Quite clearly, the war on drugs has failed, and it’s time for the District of Columbia to step up and approach this issue in a commonsense and measured way,” Grosso said.

With many residents signaling that it’s high time for a change in marijuana policy, debate on both proposals is likely to continue.

“I don’t think one bill discounts and prevents the other from moving forward,” Wells said. “These are not mutually exclusive.”

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