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Hazy Outlook for D.C.’s Effort to Decriminalize Marijuana, Following House Hearing

Mica conducted a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on District marijuana laws. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Mica conducted a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on District marijuana laws. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Blocking the District of Columbia from decriminalizing marijuana possession was not the goal of a Friday morning hearing convened on the local bill, according to the House Republican leading the hearing.  

“No one is here to negate the District law; we are looking at the implications and the enforcement regime with 26 different agencies responsible for enforcing different penalties,” said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., who held the gavel during the subcommittee hearing, plus a faux joint that was rolled by a member of his staff.  

Mica wields what he referred to as a
Mica wields a “faux joint,” rolled by his staff in preparation for Friday’s hearing. (Hannah Hess/CQ Roll Call)

Other props included a map of marijuana arrests showing that the vast majority occur in low-income areas on the far eastern side of the city, and a colored map of D.C. with federal property — comprising 22 percent of its turf — colored in green. The visuals helped reveal the motivation behind what proponents have called a social justice measure , as well as the unique character of the city, which skeptics claim might be pose one of the biggest problems  to carrying out decriminalization. “The District of Columbia is not a state. It’s not a territory. It’s not a possession,” Mica said. “In fact, it is a federal district that’s provided for under the Constitution in a specific statute.”  

After holding multiple hearings on the administration’s approach to enforcing the federal prohibition on pot in the states that have legalized the drug, Mica emphasized he was not “singling out” D.C., but wanted to look at the potential conflicts that decriminalization could create. On Friday, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations heard testimony from law enforcement officials representing the Metropolitan Police Department , the Department of Justice and the Park Police on those issues.  

The consensus was that D.C. had the same authority as states and localities to decide its own policy on pot; the approach to enforcing the law on federal turf, like the National Mall and downtown McPherson Square, would depend on officer discretion and situational circumstance, and that arrest rates would likely fall if the law was implemented.  

At the hearing’s conclusion, Mica said he was still unsure if Congress would intervene to stop the bill during the 60-day review period that lasts through mid-July.  

“We will continue this series …” he said, later telling reporters that he wants to know, “Has the narcotic changed in its potency? Does it pose an even greater risk?” Mica intends to look at all of that, and says his views on decriminalization are still evolving. “I’m learning as we go through these hearings.”  

Fellow Republican John Fleming, a doctor from Louisiana and one of the House’s outspoken pot critics, has already made up his mind. He told CQ Roll Call during a recess in the hearing that he intends to to introduce a House resolution to block the District from changing possession to a civil offense, punishable with a $25 fine, similar to a parking ticket.  

From the dais, he recounted his experience as a family physician and drug counselor and said he was worried about marijuana being a “gateway drug.” He also challenged fellow Republicans who argue for loosening drug laws on a libertarian basis. If you can do whatever you want to your body, Fleming argues “don’t expect society and taxpayers to take care of you when you’re suffering from those circumstances.”  

He said in an interview that “people who want to relax laws on marijuana are actually people who simply want less law enforcement, and they’re hiding under the umbrella of the libertarian movement, but they’re not libertarian at all.”  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has vowed to defend the law from any congressional attempts to overturn it, and said during testimony that the responsibility to decide local matters by law falls to the locally elected D.C. Council and mayor. She resents the fact that House Republicans wanted policy officials to explain their decisions to Congress, and implied the hearing was a violation of the city’s rights.

Norton wants Republicans to practice what they preach and support the American principle of “local control over local affairs,” saying “we do not intend to allow the violation of their own principles at our expense.”