Organizers with DCMJ handed out free marijuana joints to D.C. residents who worked on Capitol Hill as part of the 1st Annual Joint Session to mark 4/20 and promote legalizing marijuana on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 20, 2017. (Alex Brandon, The Associated Press)

Charges dropped against weed activist who gave out joints in front of Capitol

WASHINGTON – On April 20, an unofficial holiday for marijuana users, Capitol Police arrested eight protesters for handing out marijuana joints on land near the U.S. Capitol under local jurisdiction.

Only two of those arrested were charged with a crime, and on Monday, the U.S. attorney’s office said it would drop charges against one of those protesters.

Adam Eidinger, a marijuana activist in the District of Columbia who helped spearhead the city’s legalization efforts, faced misdemeanor possession charges for allegedly carrying 78 joints that day. He spent the night in jail and made multiple court appearances in the case.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration determined that he was carrying less than two ounces – the legal limit in D.C. – and the Justice Department dropped the charges.

“To me, this means that they don’t understand that people have a right to give cannabis away in the District and they don’t have a very good legal argument to prosecute them,” Eidinger said.

Eidinger’s case highlights the clash between federal marijuana laws and looser local regulations.

Before the April 20 demonstration, in which activists distributed joints to congressional staffers, Eidinger said he measured the marijuana to ensure that he was possessing a legal amount, then strategically placed himself on land under local jurisdiction. (The DEA weighs only the amount of cannabis, not the smoking paper it is contained in.)

Capitol Police also have jurisdiction on local land, and the agency has said that federal law applies throughout the District of Columbia. It is unusual – although not unprecedented – for Capitol Police to make arrests on District grounds while applying federal laws.

“Federal laws apply throughout the District of Columbia and the federal law was applied” by the Capitol Police, wrote Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the federal police agency, in a June email.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the District, confirmed that charges against Eidinger were dropped, although he said the office could not comment on why local charges, instead of federal charges, were pursued.

Under federal law, it is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana.

Eidinger’s attorney, Mark Goldstone, said he thinks the arrests were part of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s efforts to toughen the Justice Department’s stance on marijuana. Sessions has been a vocal opponent of marijuana usage and legalization, although a Justice Department memo obtained earlier this month by HuffPost suggests that the agency is following an Obama-era document that lays out a policy of federal noninterference with state laws, as long as public health and safety are not threatened.

But the letter also includes a list of concerns compiled by federal authorities, potentially laying the groundwork for more-aggressive federal interventions in coming years.

“This is a clear example of the federal government prosecuting low-level marijuana offenders,” Goldstone said. “From the beginning, this was just bogus, and it took four months to figure out that he had less than two ounces.”

If convicted, Eidinger would have faced up to six months in prison.

One protester, Jessica Laycock, who was arrested at the same demonstration, is seeking to get her marijuana and paraphernalia back from Capitol Police. The agency said that even though charges were dropped against Laycock, marijuana is a controlled substance and the drug would not be returned.

Eidinger and other activists still face charges from another marijuana protest April 24. During that protest, activists more clearly violated federal law by smoking marijuana on federal property, authorities allege. Eidinger’s trial is set for Sept. 11 in D.C. Superior Court.