House Republicans Begin Combating DC Marijuana Decriminalization Law

Public eye turned to the nation’s capital last month when the District of Colombia passed a bill that decriminalized marijuana. Mayor Vincent Gray signed the bill into law on March 31, and marijuana enthusiasts waited with baited breath for the Congressional Republicans’ retaliation. House Republicans now appear intent on combating DC’s decriminalization legislation, and will be hosting a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton will be defending her district’s marijuana law reform during the hearing in May. Norton is renown for her successful 11-year fight to remove Republican barriers that prohibited the District of Colombia from legalizing medical marijuana — now, four years later, she’s expressed surprise at seeing DC’s decriminalization law singled out in this fashion:

“It is appropriate for Congress to examine how the Obama administration will enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana in jurisdictions that have legalized or decriminalized it, as the subcommittee has done in two hearings this Congress. It is also appropriate to examine whether the federal marijuana prohibition preempts such local laws, but no local officials were called to testify at those hearings.”

And yet, on the other hand:

“It is inappropriate to hold a hearing on the local marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, when 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized marijuana.  There is nothing that distinguishes the District from these states except for Congress’s illegitimate power to overturn the democratically enacted local laws of the District.  What is clear is that the enforcement of marijuana laws here and throughout the country has a disproportionately unfair effect on African American men and boys, leaving them with criminal records that often cripple them for the rest of their lives.”

The bill in question decriminalizes possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, changing the penalty from potential jail time to a $25 civil fine — that’s lower than any other state in the union.  Since Mayor Gray signed the bill, it has been transferred to Congress for review and is currently undergoing a 60-day legislative review period.

Becca Glover Watkins, who is the spokeswoman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, stated that the subcommittee’s justification for reviewing DC’s decriminalization bill is that it’s an “examination of tension between federal and local marijuana laws in many jurisdictions,” and that it comes in addition to an examination of the “tension between federal laws against marijuana use and distribution in places like Colorado.”

In order to overturn the bill, the House and Senate must pass a joint resolution and President Obama would have to sign it — considering that the DC council voted 10-1 to pass the bill, and that marijuana law reform has become one of the most popular political topics in US politics, that doesn’t seem very likely at this point in time.


Photo Credit: Kevin Harber

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