When D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton immediately jumped in to say she would defend the effort in Congress.
Congress could overturn the measure with a bill of its own. But with a shift in public opinion and recent pot policy changes nationally, some are predicting the nation's lawmakers will ignore the change in their own backyard.
"Taking a hard anti-marijuana position is not likely to help them get elected anymore," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, handicapping the prospect of Congress halting the bill.
A poll released April 2 by the Pew Research Center proves Riffle's point. The nationwide survey showed that, for the second year in a row, a majority of Americans, 54 percent, supported making marijuana legal. The center's analysis shows more and more states are acting to revise drug laws. Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states took some action to ease their drug laws.
D.C. Councilmember David Grosso thinks members of Congress — who could pass a freestanding disapproval resolution in both the House and the Senate and send it President Barack Obama for his signature — won't bother.
“My assumption is that they’re kind of over this stuff, and that they’re not going to probably engage in it,” said Grosso, an at-large independent and native Washingtonian. He also predicted Obama “would probably support us,” in letting D.C.'s decriminalization effort stand.
The decriminalization bill sponsored by Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells makes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a civil offense akin to a $25 parking ticket, and lowers the fine and maximum jail penalty for publicly smoking pot from six months to 60 days.
The White House and the Justice Department have taken a hands-off approach on laws regulating the sale of marijuana in Colorado and the state of Washington, to the disappointment of Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart. Obama has also acknowledged he thinks the war on drugs has failed. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told lawmakers Friday the Obama administration would be willing to work with Congress on rescheduling penalties for marijuana. (More on that changing sentiment here and here .)
CQ Roll Call asked the White House for comment on the D.C. issue and did not immediately receive a response.
In March a House Republican bill tweaking the president on drug policy cleared the chamber 233-181. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and backed by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., would make Obama enforce federal laws as they are written, including those outlawing marijuana. Specifically it would authorize the House or the Senate to bring a civil lawsuit against the White House for executive overreach.
"It's on my radar," Gowdy told CQ Roll Call on Friday when asked about D.C.'s decriminalization bill. He said he knew nothing about the potential for overturning the bill but that he was consulting with the Judiciary Committee. Goodlatte declined to comment through a committee spokesperson.
If D.C.'s bill becomes law, codifying the smallest monetary fine of any of the states that have decriminalized the drug in the continental U.S., what kind of impact might it have on the broader conversation about marijuana policy?
Riffle said decriminalization really only changes things in the minority and low-income neighborhoods of the District. Wells’ bill was prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union study showing that D.C. ranked above cities including Los Angeles and New York in marijuana arrest rates. Between 2001 and 2010, the District had the highest per-capita marijuana arrest rate in the nation, and blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites.
“Life won’t look all that much different to the rest of the District,” Riffle said, adding that it has elevated the national debate on drug laws.
Grosso has introduced legislation to tax and regulate marijuana and considers decriminalization the first step toward a commercial system. At the same time, local marijuana advocates have been given the go-ahead to begin gathering the 25,000 signatures needed to put a legalization referendum on the November ballot. Grosso believes a council-approved tax-and-regulate bill would be a more surefire route to achieve similar ends. He said a lot of his council colleagues were concerned with “what’s going to happen with decriminalization on the streets."
“Where do you buy it? Who can buy it? Where can you smoke it?" Grosso said. "All these type of things that are addressed in the tax-and-regulate bill are not addressed in the decrim bill.”
Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, who recently won the Democratic nomination for mayor , worried about the effect of decriminalizing public smoking, as Wells originally wanted to do . D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson assuaged those concerns by amending the bill to keep it a criminal offense.
In an effort to make those councilmembers more comfortable with legalization, Grosso recently brought the company responsible for the technological side of regulations in Colorado into the John A. Wilson building. “They tag all the plants, tag all the bags of marijuana. They track the movement of it in the state. They kind of work with the places that sell it at the retail level,” he said.
In the House, Colorado Democrat Jared Polis is working to pass a bill that essentially establishes a national system of regulating marijuana, treating it as a controlled substance for federal purposes, like alcohol and cigarettes. His bill would let states, counties and cities decide whether pot is legal or illegal within their borders.
“D.C. is by no means an outlier,” said Polis, who believes changing attitudes towards pot are evidence of a "movement."
If passed, legalization would also face a 60-day congressional review period.
Congressional appropriators could also pump the brakes by amending D.C.’s spending bill to halt legalization. In the past decade, they’ve used appropriations riders to overturn council-passed bills related to medical marijuana and needle-exchange programs meant to curtail the spread of HIV.
They would be working against the tide of public opinion. The same Pew survey suggests the writing is on the wall for taxation and regulation, with 75 percent of the public thinking that the sale and use of pot will eventually be legal nationwide.
Polis said the District’s pot policy is up to the D.C. Council. As more states decide to treat marijuana as legal under medicinal or commercial law, he said, pressure increases on the members representing them to act.
Polis added, “For those of us who come from jurisdictions that have already passed laws ahead of the federal government, there’s an enormous reason to have the federal law catch up.”