Washington DC's monuments and landmarks, seen from afar. (Win McNamee, Getty Images)

Washington DC pot law poses precarious federal, local questions

WASHINGTON DC — Holding up a mock joint from his perch as chairman of a House Oversight subcommittee, a Republican congressman said a new law decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation’s capital raises plenty of questions, but he hasn’t decided whether Congress should intervene.

Rep. John Mica of Florida said at a hearing Friday that he was not singling out the District of Columbia’s marijuana policy for scrutiny, and he offered no opinion on its merits. After the hearing, he described his own position on marijuana decriminalization as “evolving.”

Mayor Vincent Gray signed a bill in March that makes possession of less than one ounce of pot a civil offense subject to a $25 fine.

Mica, brandishing an imitation marijuana cigarette, noted that a person could roll more than 20 joints with an ounce of pot. He asked what would happen if someone were found with pot on a street bordering the National Mall, which is federal property.

The acting U.S. Park Police chief said his officers could still arrest someone under those circumstances, while D.C. police said they would not.

“We’re not picking on the District. We’re looking at the implications for federal prosecution,” Mica said.

Map: State-by-state marijuana laws in the U.S. How does your state feel about marijuana?

The law would take effect if Congress takes no action after 60 legislative days. It would not apply to federal law enforcement agents such as U.S. Park Police or on federal property, which makes up nearly a quarter of the land in the city.

Congress rarely seeks to invalidate laws passed by the local government, but it has used the appropriations process to block policies opposed by social conservatives. District voters approved medical marijuana in a 1998 referendum, but for 11 years thereafter, Congress prevented the city from making it available. Congress also routinely bars the District from spending tax dollars on abortion.

Seventeen states have some form of marijuana decriminalization. Friday’s hearing was the third that Mica’s subcommittee has held on the conflict between local and federal drug laws and the Obama administration’s enforcement priorities.

Another Republican, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, said after the hearing that he would consider trying to block the district’s law, but the physician and an outspoken opponent of marijuana liberalization said he’s not sure whether it would be feasible or appropriate for Congress to intervene.

David O’Neil, acting assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Justice Department, said the department would treat the District the same way it treats the states that have decriminalized marijuana — by focusing on enforcement priorities that include large-scale drug trafficking and distribution of the drug to minors or on federal property.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com