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D.C. Officials Just Say ‘No’ to House Marijuana Hearing

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Neither Mayor Vincent Gray nor the D.C. Council will lend their marijuana policy expertise to Congress Friday, when House Republicans hold a hearing examining the District’s decriminalization proposal .  

While the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations informed the city that it would welcome a policy official to testify on the local proposal, the District will only send a representative from the Metropolitan Police Department, according to a spokesman for the GOP. The hearing was scheduled for Thursday, but was rescheduled for Friday.  

Gray’s office defended what could be perceived as a snub to the Capitol Hill lawmakers who want to single out D.C.’s bill for scrutiny, saying Congress doesn’t have any business asking the mayor about what policies are implemented. “We’re not the legislative branch; we’re the executive branch,” said mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. “This was done within the legal context of the District of Columbia.”  

While the committee also informed D.C. councilmembers that they were welcome to testify, a GOP spokesperson said they did not request the council send or designate a witness. None are on the witness list that was shared with CQ Roll Call.  

Staff for Councilmember Tommy Wells, the sponsor of the measure, did not respond to questions about Friday’s hearing, but proponents of greater autonomy for the District indicated they were proud of the move.  

“It’s important for District officials to remind members of Congress of the 1973 Home Rule Act, which granted DC authority over its local laws,” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.  

“It’s quite harmful when members of Congress, elected by voters from other jurisdictions, begin meddling in the affairs of localities in which they have no accountability or understanding of the local priorities of the residents who live there,” Perry continued. “These actions conflict with the very principles of democracy so many of the same members take pride in.”  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., applauded Gray’s office for not providing a policy official and instead sending a law enforcement official as a courtesy.  

“The District should not have to explain to Congress how local policy is formulated, and I applaud Mayor Gray for doing all he can to keep Congress out of our city’s business,” Norton said in a statement. “We resent that this hearing is being held, considering that 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, and that at the subcommittee’s other two hearings on marijuana policy, no local or state official was called.”  

Norton will be the only witness on the first panel of Friday’s hearing. The second panel will include Peter Newsham, assistant chief of the MPD; Robert MacLean, acting chief of the Park Police; David O’Neil, an assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the Justice Department; and Seema Sadanandan,  program director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.  

The local ACLU helped steer the legislation through the D.C. Council; it would drop criminal possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, down to a civil offense with a fine of $25. They pointed to a study that found that black people in D.C. are eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people, despite similar rates of use.  

In an interview with CQ Roll Call last week , Rep. John L. Mica, who will chair the hearing, said those claims were something the committee would sort through, and he said he did know all the specific details of the legislation. The Florida Republican also said he would invite the D.C. Council to testify.  

Meanwhile, pot proponents on the Hill remain hopeful the bill will survive the 60-day congressional review period without interference and become law in mid-July. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a leading advocate for less stringent marijuana laws, said he hopes Congress’ support of greater autonomy for D.C. keeps Republicans, especially those with a libertarian or “state’s rights” leaning, from meddling with the bill.  

Quoting Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Cohen told CQ Roll Call, that he hoped the District could be a “laboratory of democracy,” just like the states. “What better laboratory of democracy for Congress than where they are?”