House Committee Lords Veto Power Over DC To Scrutinize Pot Decriminalization Bill

Rep. John Mica (R-FL) holds up a point and a list of pot penalties during a House hearing. CREDIT: Screenshot
Rep. John Mica (R-FL) holds up a point and a list of pot penalties during a House hearing. CREDIT: Screenshot

Rep. John Mica (R-FL) presided over the third congressional hearing on “mixed messages” on marijuana Friday. Without seeming to recognize the irony, he held a joke in one hand and enforcement power in the other.

After hearing initial testimony, Mica held up the list of federal penalties for marijuana, contrasting them with the proposed lower penalties the District of Columbia had proposed under a bill to decriminalize marijuana. He then displayed a fake joint, joking that he didn’t roll it himself. “I had my staff do it,” he quipped. “They have more experience.”

He laughed off the comment before transitioning to say, “All kidding aside, there are very serious implications,” referring to a District of Columbia proposal to decriminalize marijuana that he said his House Oversight Committee had a responsibility to review. Under an oddity of federal law, Congress retains the power to review most laws passed by the D.C. City Council, and they have exercised that power selectively to politicize certain issues that would otherwise be local in nature. During a recess, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) told Roll Call he would use that power to introduce a resolution blocking the bill, reasoning that, “This is the only place I have a say.” Mica said he is unsure whether Congress needs to intervene with a joint resolution.

Mica noted that under the decriminalization law passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor, one could possess about 20 of those joints and be subject to a fine of $25 rather than $1,000 or up to a year of imprisonment under federal law — something he suggested created a conflict with federal law that must be taken up by Congress, even though Washington, D.C. passed its own limited law that applies only to its jurisdiction.

Other lawmakers during the hearing honed in on the dangers of marijuana, noting testimony that marijuana could affect intelligence, motivation levels, and that it is a gateway drug.

But only those representing the interests of D.C. pointed out that the reason D.C. passed the law has nothing to do with any of that. Instead, it all comes down to the fact that those like Mica’s staff members can make jokes about their period of experimentation with marijuana, much as the New York Times’ David Brooks famously declared in January that he had “Been there, done that.” They have very little fear of getting arrested.

Here’s the map of arrest distribution for marijuana in the District of Columbia provided by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s capital:

CREDIT: ACLU of the Nation’s Capitol
CREDIT: ACLU of the Nation’s Capitol

The arrests are concentrated in regions that are not only predominantly minority, but also lower-income. As Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton pointed out during her testimony, “This is a college town. There are almost no arrests west of 16th Street,” a region with fewer minorities, more wealth, and more college students.

Overall in the district, African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested than whites, even though they use marijuana at similar rates, according to the ACLU.

Underlying the hearing was Mica’s premise that DC’s law “is in conflict with some federal laws and I think we have an responsibility to review its implications.”

But nobody else seems to have that concern. Decriminalization measures are already in place in some 18 states. In fact, states have been decriminalizing marijuana since 1973. That’s because states are not obligated to pass laws that mirror those at the federal level. In particular, all decriminalization does is lower some penalties for some marijuana offenses, such that law enforcement resources are shifted to targeting those offenses deemed a danger to the public.

The District of Columbia is not a state. But under the Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress is directed to treat the District of Columbia like the states, with some particular enumerated exceptions. As Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) said in her testimony, “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.” In its testimony, the Department of Justice said, “The Department does not take a position on the merits of the bill but the Administration supports home rule generally. The Administration will treat D.C. in the same manner as every other jurisdiction with respect to the enforcement of federal marijuana.”

Congress has until the end of May to pass a joint resolution, and achieving passage in both houses, plus Obama’s signature, is an unlikely feat. But another more likely outcome is for Congress to withhold funds from the District of Columbia to implement the law. D.C.’s medical marijuana law was initially passed in 1998, but Congress withheld funding until 2009.