Mica Says D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Creates Potential Conflict

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Republicans will single out the District’s marijuana decriminalization bill during a May 8 hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations .  

Witnesses from the D.C. Council, the National Park Service and the various law enforcement agencies with a footprint in the District will be invited to testify, according to Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., who holds the gavel on the subcommittee.  

"It's against federal law to do certain things on federal property, versus now the District is looking at a minimal penalty," Mica told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. The bill, which could be law as soon as mid-July , would drop the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense, which carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, down to a civil offense with a fine of $25. It would also reduce the maximum penalty for smoking marijuana from a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, down to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.  

Like other local laws, it would not supersede federal law if enacted, according to D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who sponsored the legislation.  

Mica said he didn't know all the specific details of the legislation but was holding the hearing "to sort out where they're going with this" during the 60-day congressional review period for the bill.  

The congressman has convened two hearings on federal enforcement of marijuana, saying he wanted to examine White House policies on the drug in jurisdictions that have legalized or decriminalized it. During the Clinton administration, Mica held the first congressional hearing on pot policy. He's also kept tabs on D.C. Council activity.  

During a Feb. 5 appearance on C-SPAN, Mica said several states have gotten into recreational use and the D.C. Council was taking action "leaning towards more of the legalization."  

Production, sale and possession of more than an ounce of marijuana would remain a criminal offense under the proposal. Proponents of taxing and regulating the drug hope that enacting decriminalization will move the city in the direction of legalization.  

Though Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., is not a member of the panel, Mica will permit her to testify on the city's legislation.  

"The city’s marijuana decriminalization legislation is a responsible, but modest, response to an alarming report showing that African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in the District of Columbia," Norton said in a statement on Wednesday.  "Each jurisdiction in our country must respond to local issues, which, in the case of many marijuana possession arrests, have ruined the lives of countless African Americans across the nation."  

She called the hearing "a unique and inappropriate overreach by Congress, targeting the marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction in a hearing before a national legislature."  

Mica has expressed concern with the billions of dollars the federal government spends on education, enforcement and prevention programs, while allowing states to set their own policy.  

When asked about the high rate of racial disparities in arrest rates -- Mica said "we've heard many claims and the hearing process is actually to sort that out.  

"We'll listen to the District's side," he continued. "We have a national side because the District is indeed unique under the constitution, so we have that responsibility, too, and then we have the potential of conflict between federal statute and a local ordinance."