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D.C. Pot Decriminalization Takes Effect, but Don’t Bring Bud to Capitol Hill

Is Fleming fired up, ready to go with a resolution? Maybe not. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Is Fleming fired up, ready to go with a resolution? Maybe not. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Despite House Republican attempts to derail decriminalization , marijuana possession becomes a civil offense in the District of Columbia on Thursday, punishable by a $25 fine.  

“The government is prepared,” said Pedro Ribeiro, chief spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray, said in an interview. “We’re ready for this to go into effect.”  

On language blocking the District from lessening its drug penalties that was included in an appropriations bill that cleared the House Wednesday on a 228-195 vote, Ribeiro said, “We don’t believe that it will be a problem.”  

Bringing bud to the Capitol, and on other federal property, however, can still land you behind bars. Capitol Police say laws passed by the D.C. Council cannot alter federal law or decriminalize the possession, use, or distribution of marijuana for federal law enforcement purposes.  

“Therefore, despite the implementation of the [local law], the possession, use, or distribution of marijuana on Capitol Grounds and other areas within the USCP extended jurisdiction may result in arrest and criminal prosecution pursuant to federal drug laws,” said Lt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email.  

The federal government handles law enforcement in large portions of the District, including the National Mall and Rock Creek Park. Federal criminal penalties for marijuana-related offenses remain in effect for those properties.  

The Metropolitan Police Department has issued an 8-page special order to officers advising them of new protocols. Under the law, possession of 1 ounce or less of the drug is a civil violation and possession of drug paraphernalia like bongs, rolling papers and cigar wrappers is not an arrestable offense.  

Criminal penalties remain in effect for those caught smoking or consuming pot in public places, including streets, alleys, parks, sidewalks and parking lots. It’s also illegal to do so in a vehicle on public property.  

MPD is requiring all officers to undergo training on the new law, and is trying to fight the popular misconception that the District has legalized possession or use of pot.  

“This is absolutely not true!” Gwendolyn Crump, communication director for the department, said in a statement. As part of that campaign, MPD is printing business card-sized fact sheets that list the potential health risks of using marijuana. On Thursday, a new MPD website  goes live with information about the law.  

Like any District law, Congress could still undo the legislation.  

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., celebrated Wednesday when his provision, aimed at harshing the District’s buzz, sailed through the House.  

“I am pleased the House decided to take action to protect more teenagers from drug use,” Harris said in a statement applauding the bill’s passage. “As a physician, I have read study after study on the devastating effects of marijuana use, especially on developing brains of teenagers,” he continued, explaining that the language would protect the health and safety of teens throughout D.C.  

Harris’ amendment would have to make it in the final draft of the bill once it is reconciled with a Senate version, which is iffy, particularly following a White House veto threat .  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., celebrated the local legislation crossing the finish line of its 60-day congressional review period. Asked why she did not introduce an amendment to strike Harris’ provisions, Norton told CQ Roll Call that it was a decision made “for strategic reasons” and that she would urge Senate allies and the Obama administration to help defend D.C. home rule.  

“As we could have predicted, Republicans have used their usual route to try to overturn a D.C. law,” she said in a statement. “It was too much to hope that Republicans would allow D.C. to do what its states have done to decriminalize marijuana. But it should not have been too much to hope that Republicans, who claim to support limiting the power of the federal government, would be consistent in keeping the big foot of the federal government out of D.C.’s local affairs.”

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