Looking for an excuse to get high?
Nothing will make you want to light up more than having to sit through a series of white guys passing judgment on Washington, DC’s marijuana decriminalization law — which is exactly what happened today at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In March, Washington’s city government passed the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014. Possession of marijuana in DC is currently a criminal offense. The new law downgrades possession of less than an ounce to a civil offense with a $25 fine. While public usage will still be criminal, the mandated jail sentence would be reduced from up to 6 months to a max of 60 days. The corresponding fine would be reduced from $1000 to $500.
Owing to Washington’s peculiar status as a federal district, the new law will take effect on July 18 unless Congress passes a joint resolution that stops its enactment.
That’s highly unlikely. With a gridlocked Republican House and Democratic Senate, Congress couldn’t pass a joint resolution in favor of puppies, apple pie, or orgasms. It’s not going to agree on DC decriminalization.
But that doesn’t mean partisan committees don’t like to score political points, such as the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations.
Chaired by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the subcommittee is particularly worried about pot. This hearing was the third in a series titled “Mixed Signals: The Administration's Policy on Marijuana.”
In his opening statement, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) — a conservative doctor anxious about “reefer madness”— addressed a litany of concerns: pot as a gateway drug; users becoming dependent on “federal entitlements”; increased rates of cardiovascular disease, apathy, and schizophrenia. He even made a jab at a couple of fourth-grade dealers in Colorado.
Fleming was asked whether alcohol should be outlawed.
“Alcohol has been an accepted part of our culture, even our religious institutions, for centuries,” he said. “The public has never accepted marijuana as part of the culture. I know that’s changing, but I think we can turn it back.”
Then Mica held up what he described as a “faux” joint, and the circus began in earnest.
When asked whether he had rolled it himself, Mica answered, “No, I had staff do that. They have more experience.”
The spectacle would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that stark racial dynamics undergird how drug laws are enforced in our nation’s capitol and the rest of the country.
Despite similar levels of use, African-Americans in DC are arrested for possession at eight times the rate of whites. Nationwide, African-Americans are arrested at a rate of nearly four to one in comparison with whites.
The hearing’s first witness, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in Congress, emphasized the racial disparity of DC’s drug law enforcement.
“The enforcement of marijuana laws here and throughout the country has a disproportionately unfair effect on African-American men and boys, leaving them with criminal records that often cripple them for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Norton, who is African-American, was testifying before a panel of congressmen that was entirely white and male before she joined the panel for the second half of the hearing. Among her key points of contention was the committee’s jurisdiction to even review DC’s new law.
Despite a population of more than 600,000 people — which is roughly the size of an average congressional district — Washington is a federal district subject to congressional oversight. The District has no voting rights in either branch of Congress. Its license plates bear the motto “Taxation without Representation.”
However, Congress delegated responsibility for much of DC’s governance to a locally-elected city government in the Home Rule Act of 1973.
Saying that she “comes as much in protest as in testimony,” Norton maintained that “it is inappropriate to hold a hearing on the local marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, when 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana, and two states have legalized marijuana.”
DC Mayor Vincent Gray and the City Council didn’t attend the hearing, instead sending an assistant police chief to participate.
Mica defended Congress’s right to examine DC’s drug laws.
“The District of Columbia is not a state,” he said. “It is a federal district.”
He noted that more than 20 percent of DC is federal land, and that Americans from around the country come to visit.
“The law will impact not just the people of the District but the entire population,” he said.
Some of Mica’s concerns are legitimate. As states increasingly decriminalize, legalize, or otherwise loosen restrictions on marijuana, the myriad laws become ever more confusing. He noted that 26 agencies are responsible for law enforcement in DC, many with different rules and regulations.
Nevertheless, today’s hearing looked like more of an ideological crusade than an impartial regulatory hearing.
“Even before the Republican takeover in 2010, many conservatives in Congress have had a strange preference for using the District as a social laboratory for their own legislation and ideas,” Mark Greenbaum, a DC-based political analyst, told Vice News. “There’s a certain irony given that Republicans in Congress are repeatedly outraged by various blocks placed on federal land, such as the ban on drilling at ANWR in Alaska, arguing that such restrictions constitute federal meddling.”
There’s something to the idea of mixed signals. Two decades after Bill Clinton claimed that he “didn’t inhale,” and after George W. Bush and Barack Obama acknowledged their own substance use, the entire political culture sends mixed signals about drugs.
What isn’t a mixed signal is what DC is hoping to accomplish with its new marijuana law.
On this issue, as with nearly everything else in American culture, the Republican House remains trapped in the past.
Follow Ari Ratner on Twitter: @amratner