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Congress To Hold Hearing On D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

A bill passed by the D.C. Council drops the possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.
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A bill passed by the D.C. Council drops the possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.

A congressional committee will hold a hearing on a bill decriminalizing marijuana in D.C., raising fears that Republicans could attempt to overturn the measure.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said on Tuesday that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations will hold a hearing on a the bill in May, during the 60-day congressional review period for the law passed by the D.C. Council earlier this year and signed into law by Mayor Vincent Gray in late March.

The bill makes the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. Members of the D.C. Council said they voted to drop penalties for possession over reports of racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests in the city.

Becca Glover Watkins, a spokeswoman for the committee said that hearing would explore how the law would affect the different law enforcement agencies operating in the city and the operations of the federal courts that handle criminal cases in D.C.

"Though there are many parallels to the situation in states like Colorado, the District of Columbia utilizes the Federal Court systems for prosecuting many offenses and an array of law enforcement agencies maintain a significant presence due to the foot print of the Federal government in our nation's capital. How will these agencies enforce the law?" said Watkins.

Norton, who will testify at the hearing, said that the committee should not single out D.C.'s efforts to decriminalize marijuana, especially when many states — Maryland included — have taken similar steps.

"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," she said.

Congress can overturn D.C. laws by filing a disapproval resolution that has to be passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the president. Only three disapproval resolutions have been successful since D.C. gained home rule four decades ago, the most recent one in 1991.

In 1998, the Republican-led House prohibited the city from spending any money implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana program; that prohibition was not lifted until 2009.

If Congress does not act to disapprove the marijuana decriminalization bill, it is expected to take effect in July.

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