Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Representing the District of Columbia

request a meeting

Facebook icon
Twitter icon
YouTube icon
RSS icon

Norton Testimony Says Hearing on D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Violates Republican Principles as well as Home Rule

May 7, 2014
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC – The office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today released Norton’s testimony in advance of tomorrow’s hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations on legislation passed by the District of Columbia decriminalizing marijuana.  Norton is a senior member of the full committee, but is not a member of the subcommittee, which is chaired by Representative John Mica (R-FL).  As a member of the full committee, she will be permitted to sit with the subcommittee and ask questions following her testimony as a witness.  The hearing will take place on May 8 at 10:00 a.m. in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.

The disproportionate effect of marijuana laws on African Americans, who are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in the District, was the primary factor in moving the D.C. Council, but Norton stressed that it is inappropriate for Congress to hold a hearing on a local D.C. bill, whatever its origin.

Norton, in her written testimony submitted to the subcommittee said, “In fact, there is nothing that distinguishes the District from the states that have decriminalized marijuana except for the illegitimate power of Congress to overturn the democratically enacted local laws of the District, in contravention of every American principle of local control of local affairs.  Republicans say they support limiting the federal government’s power and devolving that power to states and localities.  This hearing does the opposite.  This hearing does not practice what Republicans preach, and we do not intend to allow the violation of their own principles at our expense.  We will defend the city’s marijuana decriminalization bill against any and all attempts to overturn or block it.”

Norton’s written testimony follows.

Testimony of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

“Mixed Signals: The Administration’s Policy on Marijuana, Part Three”

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations

May 8, 2014

Chairman Mica and Ranking Member Connolly, I appreciate the opportunity to testify today, but I regret that the subcommittee has singled out the District of Columbia and its local government for a hearing on the District’s locally passed marijuana decriminalization legislation, the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014.  During this Congress, the subcommittee has held two prior hearings on the conflict between federal and local marijuana policy, but has been scrupulous in observing the 10th Amendment of the Constitution (so often cited by the majority) by not having any local officials testify (only the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, the Deputy Director for the Office of National Drug Policy and the Deputy Administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration testified).  Those hearings appropriately examined how the Obama Administration will enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana in jurisdictions that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis. 

Congress has ultimate authority over the District of Columbia, but it devolved responsibility for local matters to a locally elected District of Columbia government in the Home Rule Act of 1973.  That landmark law requires that the District be treated like states and other jurisdictions except for a small number of enumerated exceptions.  Plainly, the District’s marijuana policy is not such an exception, and is no more inconsistent with federal law than similar laws in the 17 states that decriminalized marijuana before the District did.  Beginning in 1975, when Alaska was the first state to decriminalize marijuana, red and blue states alike have done the same—from California and New York to Mississippi and Nebraska—and two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana.  Yet the District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction called before Congress.  In fact, there is nothing that distinguishes the District from the states that have decriminalized marijuana except for the illegitimate power of Congress to overturn the democratically enacted local laws of the District, in contravention of every American principle of local control of local affairs.  Republicans say they support limiting the federal government’s power and devolving that power to states and localities.  This hearing does the opposite.  This hearing does not practice what Republicans preach, and we do not intend to allow the violation of their own principles at our expense.  We will defend the city’s marijuana decriminalization bill against any and all attempts to overturn or block it.

The Mayor of the District of Columbia has informed me that he objects to this hearing as a violation of the rights of District residents to be treated equally with citizens of other jurisdictions.  He therefore has declined to send any District official to testify who is charged with advising on or carrying out policies related to the District’s marijuana decriminalization bill.  As a courtesy, a deputy from the city’s police department, the Metropolitan Police Department, will testify only concerning D.C.’s enforcement of the D.C. marijuana decimalization bill as passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor.

I would like to thank the Obama Administration for indicating in its written testimony that it supports home rule for the District of Columbia, and will treat D.C. in the same manner as every other jurisdiction concerning the enforcement of federal marijuana laws.  I appreciate that DOJ’s testimony states that the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who enforces local criminal law in the District, would enforce the D.C. marijuana decriminalization bill under the D.C. Code.  I also note that two Republican members of this subcommittee, Representatives Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, carried out the principle of local control of local affairs by voting for the Blumenauer Amendment to H.R. 4486, which would prohibit funds made available under the bill from being used to implement Veterans Health Administration Directive 2011-004, which forbids “VA providers from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a Veteran’s participation in a state marijuana program.”  It took me 11 years to get Congress to remove an amendment that kept the city from implementing its local medical marijuana law after it was approved by D.C. voters in a 1998 initiative.  Now, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana. 

The primary reason the city’s local officials passed the District’s marijuana decriminalization legislation underscores why state and local jurisdictions insist upon the local control guaranteed by the Constitution.  An abundance of research shows that the enforcement of marijuana laws in the District of Columbia and throughout the rest of the country has long had an unfairly disproportionate effect on African Americans.  D.C. residents and elected officials were stunned by two recently released studies.  A July 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital found that, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at comparable rates, African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than Whites in the United States.  The Chair may be interested to know that in 2010, Florida was number three in the nation for marijuana possession arrests and that Blacks in Florida were arrested for marijuana possession at a rate four times higher than that of Whites. 

The study found that arrests for marijuana possession of Blacks in the progressive District of Columbia, however, are far higher than arrests nationwide.  In the District of Columbia, where about half the residents are Black, African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than non-Blacks, and in 2010, 91% of all marijuana arrests in D.C. were of African Americans.  The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs found that from 2009-2011, almost 90% of people arrested for drug possession in the District were African American, and despite urban drug markets typical of big cities, six out of 10 drug arrests were for simple possession.  The effect of arrests for mere possession of marijuana has been to ruin the lives of countless African Americans in our city, particularly Black men, who, regardless of income, start out in life surrounded by a host of stereotypes, regardless of who they are or where they live in D.C.  An arrest or conviction for marijuana possession often condemns African Americans, particularly those from low-income neighborhoods, to joblessness.  Losing the ability to find legitimate work can lead a person to the underground economy, even to selling drugs, rather than mere possession.  The Black community itself pays the price because men without the prospect of employment often do not form stable families.

In response, the District has taken a responsible and modest step to address racial disparities in our city by passing its marijuana decriminalization bill .  Under the bill, smoking marijuana in public would still be a criminal offense, consistent with federal law and with the regulations that prohibit smoking marijuana on National Park Service land.  The primary change to the District’s current law would be that possession or transfer of up to one ounce of marijuana would be a civil violation, punishable by a $25 fine, instead of a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.  The bill also expressly prohibits law enforcement from using the odor or smell of marijuana as grounds to stop and search someone.  These changes would directly address some of the inequities apparent in the enforcement of marijuana laws in the District of Columbia, and we will fight to protect the District’s bill.

The District’s experience with drugs has left it well aware of the risks associated with smoking marijuana, and the District is taking steps to make clear that the intent in changing marijuana possession laws is not to encourage youth to smoke marijuana any more than the intent of Prohibition was to encourage the consumption of alcohol.  The full risks of smoking marijuana are yet to be determined, but what we do know is that the effects on overall health, including brain health, are negative.  Frequent smoking of marijuana may prove to be as bad as or worse than smoking traditional cigarettes.  However, in a free society that respects liberty, government should help reduce the risk of use and abuse, not punish use.  The D.C. bill requires revenue collected from civil violations for marijuana possession to be placed in the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Fund, administered by the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs.  Four D.C. Prevention Centers, funded by the Department of Behavioral Health, serving all eight wards in the city, will provide education and outreach to residents, particularly young people, about the risks of marijuana use for non-medical purposes.  The District is taking these preventive steps even though research indicates that penalties for marijuana use are not a key factor in determining whether teenagers will decide to use marijuana and in spite of a Pew Research Center poll that found that “there is no significant difference in lifetime or recent use between people in states with some form of legalized marijuana and those in other states.”

The District, like many other jurisdictions, has taken a very practical step to reduce the outsized arrest and incarceration rates of minorities, who are unfairly targeted for marijuana possession in this country.  My hope is that my colleagues, regardless of their views or those of their constituents on marijuana, will respect the decisions of all jurisdictions that have decriminalized marijuana, including the District of Columbia. 

Published: May 7, 2014