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Paranoid Pot Possessors In D.C. Will Have New Worry: Did They Bring A Map?

Want to possess an ounce or less of marijuana in D.C.? Check a map.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/scubabrett22/12160794174/
Want to possess an ounce or less of marijuana in D.C.? Check a map.

Residents or visitors to D.C. who are in possession of marijuana should be aware of the city's political boundaries — it could well determine whether they get hit with a fine or end up behind bars.

That was one of the conclusions of today's congressional hearing on a D.C. bill decriminalizing marijuana. During the session, local and federal law enforcement officials testified that the city's new law would not apply on federal lands, which make up 22 percent of the city's land.

That means that a resident standing on city-controlled land would face a $25 fine for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana, while a similar resident doing the same on federal land — everything from the National Mall to the triangle parks and circle that dot the city — could face fines up to $5,000 and six months in prison.

"In the District of Columbia, USPP have primary jurisdiction over Federal parkland, which includes the National Mall, East and West Potomac Parks, Rock Creek Park, Anacostia Park, McPherson Square, and many of the traffic circles and smaller triangle parks throughout the District," said Robert MacLean, the acting chief of the U.S. Park Police. He said the Park Police would continue to enforce federal law as it pertains to the possession of marijuana.

While D.C. police make the majority of marijuana arrests, MacLean said that 55 percent of Park Police marijuana arrests in the region happened on federal land within city limits. In 2012, Park Police made 232 marijuana arrests in D.C.

During the hearing, Rep. Mica held up a fake marijuana joint.

Those differences between how D.C. police and federal police officers would treat marijuana possession were the reason of the hearing, according to Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).

He said that he had called similar hearings on marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, and that differences between how local and federal police treat possession merited discussion. He noted that 26 federal police forces are active in D.C.

"The impact is significant — more than 20 percent of D.C. is federal land and it is in fact unclear as to how the D.C. decriminalization will affect marijuana possession and use on federal land," he said.

Even with MacLean's assurances that the Park Police would still follow federal law, he did say that the decision to prosecute would be left to the U.S. Attorney for D.C., Ron Machen.

"If the D.C. Act becomes law, then we will work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia to determine our future enforcement options, especially if the person is on Federal parkland and acts in violation of NPS regulation," he testified.

Speaking on behalf of the Department of Justice, Acting Assistant Attorney General David O'Neil said that it would defer to local U.S. attorneys on the prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses.

"The administration will treat D.C. in the same manner as every other jurisdiction with respect to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws. In the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will also continue to enforce drug offenses under the D.C. Code," he said.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was allowed to testify, objected to the House committee singling out D.C.'s law for a hearing, saying that it infringed upon the city's ability to govern itself. She also said that some Western states that have decriminalized marijuana have more federal land as a proportion of total land, and they had not been subjected to congressional scrutiny.

Neither Mayor Vincent Gray nor the D.C. Council accepted an invitation to testify on the bill, which was signed by Gray in late March.

Proponents of the law defend it by saying that black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than white ones, but MPD Asst. Chief Peter Newsham said that the disparities had more to do with the number of calls from majority black parts of town than explicit policy.

The law does not change penalties for use of marijuana in public or distribution.

A 60-day congressional review period ends in mid-July. Congress can overturn the law if both houses vote to disapprove it, a measure that would require President Obama's signature. Mica said that no decision had been made over whether Congress would challenge the law.

Update, 1:15 p.m.: Roll Call reports that a Louisiana Republican plans on introducing a disapproval resolution.

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