By Phillip Smith
Even as the House held a first hearing on the District of Columbia's recently passed decriminalization law, at least one Republican congressman is threatening to file legislation to undo it. Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) told CQ Roll Call he plans to introduce a congressional resolution to overturn it.
The hearing came in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Government Operations, chaired by Rep. John Mica (R-FL). Mica said his views on the issue were "evolving" and that he might hold additional hearings on the law.
Because Washington, DC, is a federal district, Congress has powers it can exercise over its governance. Under the law, Congress has 60 days to block the law from taking effect. That would require the approval of the House, the Senate, and the president.
Still, DC supporters and marijuana reform supporters are fighting back in an increasingly heated war of words.
DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) scolded the subcommittee, saying it was inappropriate for the House to hold a hearing on only the District's law when "18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized marijuana."
"It's outrageous that Congress is trying to sabotage DC's success in ending marijuana arrests," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. "Congress should follow the lead of lawmakers in DC and reform federal marijuana laws."
The decrim bill (Council Bill 20-409) passed the council on a 10-1 vote and was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray prior to its transmission to Congress. It eliminates the threat of arrest for possessing marijuana and ensures that people are no longer saddled with life-long convictions that make it difficult to obtain employment and housing.
The legislation also prohibits law enforcement from using the smell of marijuana as grounds for stopping and searching a person. Instead of arresting people, the bill would impose a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it. It is widely viewed as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
"It is inexcusable that congressional time and resources are being spent to criticize local officials for eliminating racist and ineffective marijuana laws when large swaths of the American public support an end to marijuana prohibition," added Smith. "Members of Congress like Rep. John Fleming who say they are earnest about advancing public health and safety should take a hard look at the devastation wrought by marijuana prohibition."
If some Republican congressmembers are unhappy with DC's decrim bill, they are going to be in an absolute snit if and when District voters decide to outright legalize marijuana. The DC Cannabis Campaign legalization ballot initiative is in the signature-gathering phase right now and should easily qualify for the November ballot.