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DC officials decry congressional review of marijuana decriminalization

Congress continued its review of D.C.'s new marijuana decriminalization law, which would put it in the company of 18 states that have passed similar legislation.
By Gabrielle Levy   |   May 9, 2014 at 1:33 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, May 9 (UPI) -- A House panel continued its consideration of the recent move to decriminalize marijuana possession in Washington, D.C., prompting criticism from the city's mayor and delegate that Congress was overstepping its bounds.

The House Oversight Committee's Subcommittee on Government Operations, which has held two previous hearings on federal marijuana policy, is considering action on D.C.'s new law, signed by Mayor Vincent Gray in March, that would decriminalize the possession of up to 1 oz. of marijuana. Gray has objected to the hearings, and committee member Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., echoed his objections in witness testimony Friday.

The Home Rule Act of 1973 "requires that the District be treated like states and other jurisdictions except for a small number of enumerated exceptions," she said. "Plainly, the District's marijuana policy is not such an exception, and is no more inconsistent with federal law than similar laws in the 17 states that decriminalized marijuana before the District did."

But Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who has led the Congressional review of the law, expressed concern that the law would have implications for federal policy, thanks to the District's 26 law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdictions that could make the decriminalization statute difficult to police.

"More than 20 percent of D.C. is federal land and it is in fact unclear how the D.C. criminalization will affect marijuana possession and consumption on federal land," Mica said.

But Holmes, supported by testimony from Acting Assistant Attorney General David O'Neil and Assistant D.C. Chief of Police Peter Newsham, said the law drew clear lines.

"Six or seven states in the United States have most of their land to be federal land, and yet this committee does not claim that represents in a particular problem in the enforcement of local laws which may differ from federal laws," Holmes said.

O'Neil and Newsham both reiterated that the District's law would only apply in non-federal spaces. Additionally, while it decriminalizes possession of the drug, smoking marijuana in any public place is still an arrestable offense.

The District's decriminalization law would follow in the footsteps of 18 states that have passed similar measures. While public attitudes on marijuana use have changed in favor of legalization in recent years, D.C.'s law is also a response to growing concern over racial disparities in drug law enforcement.

According to a study from the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2010 and 2012, blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana in the United States, despite the two groups using the drug at roughly equal rates.

In D.C., that disparity was dramatically wider: 91 percent of marijuana-related arrests in D.C. were of African-Americans, even though the district's white and black populations are approximately equal in size.

While Mica said his views on marijuana decriminalization were "evolving," he said he was not yet ready to decide how to act.

Defending Congress' right to review D.C. laws for 60 days before they go into effect, Mica said he would wait to hear additional testimony from the Office of National Drug Control Policy on the safety and potency of marijuana use.

"No one is here to negate the district law," he said. "We are here to look at the implications."

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