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If D.C. Decriminalizes Marijuana, Will Congress' Reaction Be a Buzz Kill?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
A bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana has support from 10 of D.C.’s 13 councilmembers. Gray has also indicated he could support the measure.

The District appears ready to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, with supporters confident that Capitol Hill would not stand in the way of their effort, despite the prolonged pot-related policy fights of the past.

“It seems like the mood in Congress is less government intervention into people’s lives,” said Councilmember Tommy Wells, a Democrat who represents Capitol Hill. “I don’t see them trying to stop this, I really don’t.”

Wells, who is running for mayor, wants to reduce the charge for being caught with small amounts of marijuana deemed for personal use from criminal to civil. Under a measure he helped to draft, possession of less than 1 ounce would no longer be punishable by six months of jail time and a $1,000 fine. Offenders would instead face a $100 fine, with no damage to their record.

Congress thwarted D.C.’s last effort to change pot policy — a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana — for more than a decade. But the Justice Department’s hands-off approach to state drug laws, including Colorado’s and Washington’s recent moves to liberalize marijuana policy, gives the District’s decriminalization advocates hope.

“This is a national issue, it’s not just a D.C. issue, and so I feel confident that it will create an opportunity for local congressional representatives to watch D.C. try to grapple and solve this,” Wells told CQ Roll Call.

If the law is passed by the council and signed by Mayor Vincent Gray, it would head to Congress, where it would undergo a 60-day review period during which anti-marijuana members could vote to prevent decriminalization in the nation’s capital.

Councilmember Marion Barry, who helped draft the bill, thinks an effort to overturn the measure is highly unlikely. Since passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973, Congress has largely allowed local legislation to stand.

However, critics have other methods of blocking local bills from becoming law.

Fifteen years ago, former Rep. Bob Barr attached a rider to the District’s appropriations bill to forbid medical marijuana legalization. The Georgia Republican, who is currently campaigning to return to Congress, has since changed his tune, but the Barr amendment had long-lasting influence on the city’s drug policy. Democrats lifted it in 2009, under the leadership of Rep. José E. Serrano of New York.

“No, no, no,” Barry told CQ Roll Call when asked if he foresees Congress attaching a rider to its next must-pass bill.

Decriminalization could pose an interesting legal dilemma on the Capitol campus, where the Capitol Police have the authority to enforce both D.C. Code and U.S. Code. The department declined to comment on pending legislation.

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