WASHINGTON, DC — The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations held a hearing Friday on legislation recently passed by the District of Columbia that eliminates criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
The panel, chaired by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), heard testimony describing severe racial disparities in the enforcement of D.C. marijuana laws and strong support among D.C. lawmakers and residents for eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
In testimony Friday before the subcommittee, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) criticized the decision to hold a congressional hearing on D.C.’s decision to reform its local marijuana laws as a step towards reducing racial disparities in its criminal justice system.
Congresswoman Norton, and Seema Sadanandan, another witness who testified on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, described how people of color are disproportionately targeted and arrested for marijuana law violations in D.C. and thereafter experience lifelong barriers to employment, housing and other necessities on account of a marijuana arrest record.
Speaking to a reporter with CQ Roll Call, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) indicated he plans to introduce a congressional resolution to overturn D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization law and Rep. Mica said that his views on whether Congress should intervene are “evolving.”
In closing remarks during Friday’s hearing, Rep. Mica indicated he might soon hold an additional hearing on the D.C. measure.
“It’s outrageous that Congress is trying to sabotage D.C.’s success in ending marijuana arrests,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “Congress should follow the lead of lawmakers in D.C. and reform federal marijuana laws.”
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released groundbreaking reports documenting enormous racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession in D.C.
These reports found that the majority of all drug arrests in the District are for simple possession of marijuana and the vast majority of the thousands arrested each year in the District are African American. African Americans in D.C. are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people – even though government surveys show that both groups use marijuana at similar rates.
The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)” was passed 10-1 by the D.C. Council and signed by Mayor Vincent Gray prior to its transmission to Congress.
It eliminates the threat of arrest for possessing marijuana and ensures that people are no longer saddled with life-long convictions that make it difficult to obtain employment and housing. The legislation also prohibits law enforcement from using the smell of marijuana as grounds for stopping and searching a person.
Instead of arresting people, the bill would impose a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it. This legislation is widely viewed as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Under federal law, legislation passed by the District of Columbia cannot become law until it is first made available to Congress for a predetermined period of time. Barring action by Congress, the D.C. Council projects this legislation will take effect on July 17th.
“It is inexcusable that congressional time and resources are being spent to criticize local officials for eliminating racist and ineffective marijuana laws when large swaths of the American public support an end to marijuana prohibition,” added Smith. “Members of Congress like Rep. John Fleming who say they are earnest about advancing public health and safety should take a hard look at the devastation wrought by marijuana prohibition.”
Friday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Government Operations was the third in recent months to examine marijuana policy. Although the first two hearings examined the Obama administration’s response to state-and-local level marijuana law reforms and called only federal witnesses, Friday’s hearing was the first to call up local witnesses.
Last week, a floor amendment that would have prohibited the Veterans Administration from spending federal funds to enforce a directive prohibiting VA medical staff from recommending or even discussing medical marijuana with their military veteran patients was supported by 195 members of Congress including more than twenty Republicans.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), two members of the subcommittee that held Friday’s hearing, are cosponsors of the “Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013.” House Bill 1523 would amend federal law to exempt any person acting in compliance with the marijuana laws in their state from prosecution for violating federal marijuana laws.
Authored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), this legislation has received bipartisan support from more than two dozen members of Congress. Rep. Rohrabacher recently announced in Congress plans to introduce an amendment on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that would prohibit the Drug Enforcement Administration from spending federal funds to prosecute persons who are in compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their state.
A poll conducted in April 2013 by Public Policy Polling, and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project, found three out of four D.C. voters support changing District law to replace criminal penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana with a civil fine similar to a traffic ticket.
A poll conducted in January by the Washington Post found 63 percent of D.C. residents in support of not just decriminalizing marijuana, but also taxing and regulating it like alcohol. Recent national surveys by Gallup, Pew Research Center, CNN/ORC, CBS News and other outlets found a majority of Americans support legally regulating the production and sale of marijuana.
WASHINGTON -- The United States government took a historic step back from its long-running drug war on Thursday, when Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice would allow the states to create a regime that would regulate and implement the ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana for adults.
A Justice Department official said that Holder told the governors in a joint phone call early Thursday afternoon that the department would take a "trust but verify approach" to the state laws. DOJ is reserving its right to file a preemption lawsuit at a later date, since the states' regulation of marijuana is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole also issued a three-and-a-half page memo to U.S. attorneys across the country. "The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests," it reads. "A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice."
The memo also outlines eight priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. According to the guidance, DOJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:
- the distribution of marijuana to minors;
- revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
- the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
- state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
- violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
- drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
- growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;
- preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
The eight high-priority areas leave prosecutors bent on targeting marijuana businesses with a fair amount of leeway, especially the exception for "adverse public health consequences." And prosecutors have shown a willingness to aggressively interpret DOJ guidance in the past, as the many medical marijuana dispensary owners now behind bars can attest.
U.S. Attorneys will individually be responsible for interpreting the guidelines and how they apply to a case they intend to prosecute. A Justice Department official said, for example, that a U.S Attorney could go after marijuana distributors who used cartoon characters in their marketing because that could be interpreted as attempting to distribute marijuana to minors.
But the official stressed that the guidance was not optional, and that prosecutors would no longer be allowed to use the sheer volume of sales or the for-profit status of an operation as triggers for prosecution, though these factors could still affect their prosecutorial decisions.
The Obama administration has struggled with the legalization of medical marijuana in several states. Justice Department Officials had instructed federal prosecutors across the country not to focus federal resources on individuals who were complying with state laws regarding the use of medical marijuana. But the U.S. attorneys in several states that had legalized medical marijuana rebelled, and what was known as the Ogden memo faced stiff resistance from career prosecutors.
"That's just not what they do,” one former Justice official told HuffPost. “They prosecute people."
As a result of the internal pushback at DOJ, a new memo was issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2011 that gave U.S. attorneys more cover to go after medical marijuana distributors. Federal prosecutors began threatening local government officials with prosecution if they went forward with legislation regulating medical cannabis.
After recreational marijuana initiatives passed in Washington and Colorado in November, President Barack Obama said the federal government had “bigger fish to fry” and would not make going after marijuana users a priority.
Holder said back in December that the federal response to the passage of the state ballot measures would be coming “relatively soon.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told HuffPost his office was preparing for the “worst-case scenario” of a federal lawsuit against the law.
UPDATE: 6:15 p.m. -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who'd been pressing Holder to make a decision and respect the will of the states' voters, applauded the move, saying in a statement that "the Justice Department should focus on countering and prosecuting violent crime, while respecting the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use." He had previously scheduled a hearing on the issue for Sept. 10.
At issue will be how the U.S. Attorneys will implement the directive. John Walsh, the lead prosecutor for the District of Colorado, has previously aggressively interpreted guidance from Justice higher-ups and targeted medical marijuana dispensaries that were not accused of breaking any state laws, like those that were operating near schools. His reaction Thursday to Holder's announcement might not give Colorado business owners much confidence that he intends to modify his approach.
"Of particular concern to the U.S. Attorney’s Office are cases involving marijuana trafficking directly or indirectly to children and young people; trafficking that involves violence or other federal criminal activity; trafficking conducted or financed by street gangs and drug cartels; cultivation of marijuana on Colorado’s extensive state and federal public lands; and trafficking across state and international lines," Walsh said. "In addition, because the Department of Justice’s guidance emphasizes the central importance of strong and effective state marijuana regulatory systems, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to focus on whether Colorado’s system, when it is implemented, has the resources and tools necessary to protect those key federal public safety interests. To accomplish these goals, we look forward to closely working with our federal, state and local partners."
Via Huffington Post