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House Hearing Will Explore How D.C. Marijuana Law Affects Federal Police

A House committee will hold a hearing on a D.C. bill that decriminalizes marijuana.
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A House committee will hold a hearing on a D.C. bill that decriminalizes marijuana.

Today a House committee will hold a hearing on a D.C. law decriminalizing marijuana. While the law easily passed the D.C. Council and was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray, Republican members of Congress have expressed concern over how the law would affect federal police forces working within city limits. Here's what you need to know about the hearing.

Why is this hearing be held?

Despite having its own legislature and elected mayor, D.C. remains under ultimate control of Congress. Any bill passed by the Council and signed by the mayor undergoes a period of congressional review — 30 days for normal bills, 60 days for bills amending the criminal code. Gray signed the marijuana decriminalization bill — which drops the penalty for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a $25 fine — in March, triggering the 60-day review that is expected to end in mid-July.

Congressional Republicans led by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) have expressed concern with the city's law and the Obama administration's broader policy on enforcing federal marijuana laws. Tomorrow's hearing will be the third that address conflicts between local and federal laws on marijuana, with a particular emphasis on D.C.

What federal issues are at stake with D.C.'s law?

D.C. is home to multiple police forces, and the law passed by the D.C. Council only applies to the Metropolitan Police Department, which is responsible for the majority of marijuana-related arrests.

Still, a number of federal forces like the U.S. Park Police and U.S. Capitol Police won't follow the law, meaning that decriminalization in D.C. will depend on where the arrest happens — in some areas, a matter of blocks could make the difference between a $25 fine and possible jail time. In 2012, Park Police made 232 marijuana arrests; NBC Washington reported yesterday that U.S. Capitol Police have arrested hundreds of people for drug-related offenses since 2010.

There's also the issue of the courts: In D.C., the federal government funds the judiciary, but local courts would no longer be dealing with marijuana-related arrests provided they are for possession of less than one ounce and are made by MPD.

D.C.'s law also plays into the ongoing conflicts between state and federal laws on marijuana. Colorado and Washington have fully legalized marijuana, while a number of other states — including Maryland — have decriminalized it. President Obama has said that the Department of Justice will not expend resources on marijuana enforcement in states where it is decriminalized or legalized, a position that has angered some Republicans.

Can the committee reverse D.C.'s law?

Yes, but it's unlikely. Congress can pass a disapproval resolution, but it would require both the House and the Senate and Obama's signature to take effect. Since home rule was granted four decades ago, only three D.C. bills have formally been disapproved.

Congress can also use its power of the purse, though. Since Congress currently appropriates the city's budget, it can add policy riders to any spending plan mandating that the city spend or not spend money in specific ways. After a 1998 ballot measure legalized medical marijuana in D.C., Republicans prohibited the city from using any money to implement the law. The prohibition remained in place until 2009.

What are D.C. officials saying?

D.C. officials have long argued that local laws should not be second-guessed by Congress, much less overturned. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who will be speaking at the hearing, says that while it's fine for Congress to explore the conflicts between local and federal laws on marijuana, it's not appropriate to single out D.C.

"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 in a statement.

City officials justify the bill by saying that marijuana-related arrests disproportionately impacted African American residents.

Who's going to speak at the hearing?

Norton will speak on a first panel, while a second panel will include Assistant MPD Chief Peter Newsham, Acting Park Police Chief Robert MacLean, Acting Assistant Attorney General David O'Neil, and Seema Sadanandan from the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.

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