Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., has serious concerns about the conflict between state and federal laws regulating marijuana, and he brought a "mock" joint to a hearing at the Capitol on Friday to illustrate that point.
"Don't get too excited out there, some of you, this is not a real one, this is a mock one," Mica said as he held up the joint at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee's Government Operations subpanel.
Mica pointed out that there are 26 federal agencies responsible for law enforcement in the District of Columbia, including the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Park Police and the Smithsonian police. Federal law enforcement officials are obligated to enforce federal laws, which strictly bans any use of marijuana.
Yet earlier this year, the D.C. city council voted overwhelmingly in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession. Already, 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized recreational marijuana -- all in conflict with federal law.
However, the U.S. Congress has a unique opportunity to intervene in Washington, D.C., since the federal legislative body technically has authority over all of the District of Columbia's municipal laws. Before the new law goes into effect, it must go through a review period during which Congress could pass a resolution "disapproving" of it. Congress could also use the power of the purse as leverage over the District.
While Congress in recent years has shown more deference to the District's lawmaking, it has a history of intervening on this issue -- the District approved medical marijuana use in 1998, but it took more than 10 years for Congress to let the city implement the new rules. This year, however, Congress doesn't seem inclined to get involved.
All the same, Mica and other lawmakers on Friday expressed unease over the conflict between federal law and the laws passed by states and the District. Mica said the D.C. law is particularly problematic, since the federal government has jurisdiction over a significant portion of land in the District.
"The law we're talking about will impact... not only the people of the District but the people of the United States, and we have millions and millions of people visiting us each year," he said.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's representative in Congress, pointed out several states have significant portions of land governed by the federal government. In Alaska, the first state to ever decriminalize marijuana, the federal government owns 61 percent of the land, she pointed out.
Washington, D.C.'s decriminalization bill is a "purely local matter," she said, pointing out that Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo instructing U.S. attorneys to focus their efforts on prosecuting drug traffickers rather than interfering with state laws that allow for some individual marijuana use.
Mica pointed out that in that memo, Holder cited eight priorities for U.S. attorneys, including, "preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property."
David O'Neil, acting assistant Attorney General, told Congress, "The administration will treat D.C. in the same manner as every other jurisdiction with respect to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws."
O'Neil said he was not aware of any difficulties enforcing marijuana laws in Alaska, in spite of its large swaths of federal land.
Still, acting U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean confirmed that his agency still intends to enforce federal laws in federal parkland in the District. Under National Park Service regulations, he said, an arrestee could be charged with a misdemeanor with a possible penalty of incarceration of up to 6 months and a fine of up to $5,000.
Norton and other advocates for the District pointed out that interference with Congress would disproportionately impact Washington, D.C.'s large African-American community, given the disparity in marijuana arrests. Last July, the ACLU released data showing that black people in the District are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
"In our city and across the country, they have ruined the lives of African Americans, especially African-American men who start in life surrounded by a host of stereotypes," Norton said. "A marijuana possession arrest... particularly in low-income areas, will almost surely wipe out the opportunity to find a legitimate job."
Rep. Steven Cohen, D-Tenn., said that while states are often considered the "laboratories of democracy," the District could be an even better place to experiment with looser marijuana laws. There is "no better laboratory than right here where the members are situated, where they can see and experience... how this law affects the populace," he said.