The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations held a hearing today on legislation recently passed by the District of Columbia that eliminates criminal penalties for marijuana possession. The panel, chaired by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), heard testimony describing severe racial disparities in the enforcement of D.C. marijuana laws and strong support among D.C. lawmakers and residents for eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
In testimony today before the subcommittee, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) criticized the decision to hold a congressional hearing on D.C.’s decision to reform its local marijuana laws as a step towards reducing racial disparities in its criminal justice system. Congresswoman Norton, and Seema Sadanandan, another witness who testified on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, described how people of color are disproportionately targeted and arrested for marijuana law violations in D.C. and thereafter experience lifelong barriers to employment, housing and other necessities on account of a marijuana arrest record. Speaking to a reporter with CQ Roll Call, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) indicated he plans to introduce a congressional resolution to overturn D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization law and Rep. Mica said that his views on whether Congress should intervene are “evolving.” In closing remarks during today’s hearing, Rep. Mica indicated he might soon hold an additional hearing on the D.C. measure.
“It’s outrageous that Congress is trying to sabotage D.C.’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 D.C. and reform federal marijuana laws.”
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released groundbreaking reports documenting enormous racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession in D.C. These reports found that the majority of all drug arrests in the District are for simple possession of marijuana and the vast majority of the thousands arrested each year in the District are African American. African Americans in D.C. are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people – even though government surveys show that both groups use marijuana at similar rates.
The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)” was passed 10-1 by D.C. Council and 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. This legislation is widely viewed as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Under federal law, legislation passed by the District of Columbia cannot become law until it is first made available to Congress for a predetermined period of time. Barring action by Congress, the D.C. Council projects this legislation will take effect on July 17th.
“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.”
Today’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Government Operations was the third in recent months to examine marijuana policy. Although the first two hearings examined the Obama administration’s response to state-and-local level marijuana law reforms and called only federal witnesses, today’s hearing was the first to call up local witnesses. Last week, a floor amendment that would have prohibited the Veterans Administration from spending federal funds to enforce a directive prohibiting VA medical staff from recommending or even discussing medical marijuana with their military veteran patients was supported by 195 members of Congress including more than twenty Republicans. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), two members of the subcommittee that held today’s hearing, are cosponsors of the “Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013.” House Bill 1523 would amend federal law to exempt any person acting in compliance with the marijuana laws in their state from prosecution for violating federal marijuana laws. Authored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), this legislation has received bipartisan support from more than two dozen members of Congress. Rep. Rohrabacher recently announced in Congress plans to introduce an amendment on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that would prohibit the Drug Enforcement Administration from spending federal funds to prosecute persons who are in compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their state.
A poll conducted in April 2013 by Public Policy Polling, and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project, found three out of four D.C. voters support changing District law to replace criminal penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana with a civil fine similar to a traffic ticket. A poll conducted in January by the Washington Post found 63 percent of D.C. residents in support of not just decriminalizing marijuana, but also taxing and regulating it like alcohol. Recent national surveys by Gallup, Pew Research Center, CNN/ORC, CBS News and other outlets found a majority of Americans support legally regulating the production and sale of marijuana.