Congress May Overturn D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization, Norton Warns

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 22, 2014 at 5:20pm

The District’s effort to decriminalize marijuana may be facing its first challenge from Congress.  

In May, a House Oversight and Government Reform panel will convene for a hearing focused on the local legislation, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. In a statement, she called it “inappropriate” to hold a hearing on the local marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction “when 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized marijuana.”  

Congress should instead be examining how the Justice Department will enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana in those jurisdictions, she suggested, or examining whether the federal marijuana prohibition preempts such local laws.  

An Oversight Committee spokesperson indicated in a statement to CQ Roll Call that the hearing aligns with its ongoing attempt to examine the tension between federal laws against marijuana use and distribution with local laws in places like Colorado.  

“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,” said committee spokesperson Becca Glover Watkins in an email.  

“How will these agencies enforce the law?” she continued. “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.”  

Norton plans to testify on behalf of the District’s decriminalization bill, which she calls a victory for racial justice, citing the city’s disproportionate marijuana arrest rate among African American men and boys.  

In a departure from standard committee procedure, she will also join members of the subcommittee in questioning the witnesses.  

More details on timing and witnesses were not yet available. Members of Congress have thus far been coy on whether or not they plan to try to overturn the local law.  

Like all D.C. Council legislation that impacts the criminal code, after being signed by Mayor Vincent Gray the bill is subject to a 60-day review period by Congress.  

It would drop the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense, which carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, down to a civil offense with a fine of $25. It’s the smallest monetary fine of any of the states that have decriminalized the drug, outside of Alaska. It would also reduce the maximum penalty for smoking marijuana from a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, down to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Production, sale, and possession of over an ounce would remain a criminal offense.  

Norton will formally announce her plans to testify on Tuesday evening, during a Drug Policy Alliance reception celebrating the passage of the marijuana decriminalization legislation.