DC delegate: 'We are arming ourselves' to defend pot law

Washington D.C.'s lone congressional voice is “arming” against a possible Republican campaign to block a newly passed law decriminalizing marijuana in the nation's capital.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the Republicans' plan to examine D.C.'s new law before the House Oversight Committee next week might be the first step in a broader GOP effort to prevent the law from taking effect.

With that in mind, Norton has been meeting with dozens of groups in a campaign to build support, not only in the advocacy community, but among lawmakers from both parties who represent states that have passed similar decriminalization statutes.

“We are arming ourselves,” Norton said Friday by phone.

The comments arrive just a few days ahead of a scheduled May 8 hearing on D.C.'s new law before the Oversight Committee’s Government Operations subpanel.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who heads the subcommittee, has already held two hearings this year to assess the enforcement of marijuana laws given the notable conflict between federal statutes and those in some states. And committee leaders say Thursday's meeting on the D.C. law is designed to answer similar questions.

But Norton, who will testify before the panel on Thursday, said she suspects the motivations might run deeper than that. While Congress's examination of the federal-state legal divide is perfectly legitimate, she said, the Republicans' decision to give the D.C. law its own airing has stirred concerns that some GOP lawmakers might be eying ways to use Congress's special authority over the District to block the changes.

“This is the only hearing directed directly at a certain jurisdiction,” Norton said. “It stands out for that reason.”

“We are hoping this will not be the first step” toward a broader effort to block the law altogether, Norton added.

At issue is a new law, passed by the D.C. Council in March, to decriminalize some recreational use of marijuana. Under the bill, those found carrying small amounts of the drug, or smoking it in the privacy of their homes, would no longer face criminal charges, but would instead pay civil penalties of just $25 – less than most parking tickets in the city. 

The law does not ease penalties for smoking pot in public, which would remain a jailable criminal offense. 

At least 17 other states, spanning a spectrum of political ideologies, have also decriminalized recreational marijuana to some extent. 

The growing trend has been cheered by many human rights and prison reform advocates, who have long-criticized marijuana laws for being too harsh at the expense of non-violent offenders, particularly blacks and other minorities who are sentenced in disproportionate numbers. 

But critics, including many Capitol Hill Republicans, say they're worried about the D.C. law's effects on public health and safety, as well as the signal it sends to the rest of the country.

“I don't think that sends the right message to the next generation or the current working generation,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Oversight panel, said after the D.C. Council vote.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed the measure into law on March 31, but under the unique rules governing the District, Congress has several months to examine – and potentially overturn – the measure before it takes effect. 

Such a direct move is extremely rare, as it requires the House, the Senate and the White House all to act. But Norton said her deeper concern is that Republicans might try to attach an amendment to a larger must-pass package – perhaps D.C.'s appropriations bill – to block the marijuana law beneath the radar.

She cited the GOP’s successful, years-long effort to use “riders” to bar, not only federal funds, but also local money for needle exchange programs in D.C., even as the city faced near-endemic levels of HIV cases. 

Norton said there's no signal Republicans plan to use similar tactics to undermine the decriminalization law, but she's not taking any chances. 

“You don't let one of these things go by just hoping nothing comes of it,” she said.

The Oversight Committee did not respond to questions Friday. 

This story was updated on May 5.