It is a game of tug-of-war between those who want autonomy to govern themselves and others who hid behind a 226-year-old doctrine to diminish the thought of self-determination.
Four congressmen gave onlookers a taste of the brewing battle on the District of Columbia. Two in favor, one adamantly opposed, and a committee head flexing his muscle to keep the District in servitude. This time the issue was decriminalizing possession of marijuana. The U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's subcommittee on Government Operations called a hearing to discuss the matter.
It was another opportunity for political leaders from outside jurisdictions to impose their bigoted and biased will on Americans who want the same privileges as residents in other states. "I'm not here to negate the District law. No decision has been made on whether Congress will attempt to overturn the law that has been passed," said Rep. John Mika (R-Fla.). He added that many members were concerned with this law because of the millions of tourists that visit Washington, D.C. each year.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), speaking in support of the law, was the only elected representative from D.C. to testify before the committee during Congress' 60-day challenge period. Other city officials, including the mayor, were summoned and chose not to attend. "This is the first time I can remember that there has been a hearing in Congress on a purely local matter," Norton said. She pointed out that only 20 percent of District land is federal, unlike Nevada, Alaska, and Utah where more than 60 percent of the state is federal land. "Surely, you would give the District the same respect as Colorado," Norton added. "There was no hearing to stop it from legalizing marijuana."
In January, Colorado became the first state in the nation to allow the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone age 21 or older. It also became the first jurisdiction in the world to regulate marijuana from seed to sale. Residents can buy marijuana, like alcohol. Cannabis purchase is limited to an ounce. There are 18 states that have legalized marijuana in some way.
Marijuana is a hot topic on Capitol Hill. One of the most alarming testimonies came from Seema Sadanandan, program director, American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital (ACLUNCA). Sadanandan cited some statistics from a recent ACLUNCA report "Behind the DC Numbers: The War on Marijuana in Black and White." According to the report, while usage of marijuana is equal among Blacks and Whites, 91 percent of arrests were of Blacks, males in particular. "More than 54 percent of the individuals arrested for possession were not charged with any other crime," Sadanandan said. "This indicates the steps that led to the arrests were not related to illegal behavior. Race was the motivating factor to stop and search."
At the hearing, the members disagreed about how the matter should move forward. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) was in favor of the District's decriminalization. Cohen introduced a bill to "unmuzzle" the drug czar and allow the truth about marijuana to be told, that it is safer than alcohol.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky), a libertarian, voted to allow Veterans Administration doctors to talk to patients about medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
The issue of the substance on federal lands resurfaced when Mika held up a faux marijuana joint, asking law enforcement officers if someone possessing it on federal property would be arrested. "We understand that the D.C. Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 would only amend District law. I would not alter the National Park Service regulation or federal laws on marijuana," testified Robert Maclean, acting chief, U.S. Park Police (USPP). "With regards to simple possessions, USPP enforcement is left to the sound discretion of the individual officer on the ground."
According to the ACLU report, USPP made fewer than three percent of the total marijuana arrests, yet 80 percent were of African Americans.
Norton said this one was of the motivating factors for stopping a racially biased arrest system costing the District more than $40 million in police enforcement, judicial and legal fees, and incarceration.
Rep. John Fleming (R- La), separates marijuana from alcohol and tobacco by saying, "No matter how detrimental, these are a part of our culture." With complete disregard for the racial disparities, Fleming, a physician, said he intends to introduce a disapproval resolution to overturn the legislation. "This is the only place I have a say," Fleming said.
Norton reiterated her commitment to defend D.C. home rule. Congress gave up its power to enact local laws for the District 40 years ago and almost no local laws have been overturned. Under the Home Rule Act of 1973, District criminal bills, including the marijuana decriminalization bill, take effect after a 60-legislative-day congressional review period unless a resolution of disapproval is enacted during such period. The resolution must be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president.
Only three resolutions of disapproval have been enacted since 1973, none since 1991. Norton believes she can stop the D.C. marijuana decriminalization bill from being overturned during the 60-day congressional review period or through other legislative vehicles.