D.C. Will Decriminalize Pot Possession as Long as Congress Doesn't Interfere

On Tuesday night, Washington, D.C.'s council approved a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

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On Tuesday night, Washington, D.C.'s city council approved a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Now, if you want to carry around an ounce or less in the nation's capital, you'll get a $25 fine, similar to a parking ticket. Unless, of course, Congress decides to intervene.

The bill now has to sit before congressional panel for 60 days, during which time the House and Senate could agree to reject it. That probably won't happen — Congress has only rejected a bill before a panel like this three times since 1972. But if federal lawmakers are going to speak up about decriminalization, now would be the time to do it.

Rep. Darrell Issa, whose House committee controls many D.C. affairs, declined to comment to The Washington Post about the bill. But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s nonvoting member of Congress, told the Post the doesn't expect Congress to "interfere." She says if federal lawmakers do try to reject the bill, "I will stoutly defend D.C.’s right to pass such legislation, just as 17 states have already done."

Norton points out that D.C. is following the lead of other states that have gone even further to end marijuana prohibition. Colorado and Washington, of course, have legalized the sale of recreational weed. Federal lawmakers did not intervene in those actions, and President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have assured these states that federal prosecutors will likely not go after dispensaries. D.C. is only decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot — you could still get busted for openly smoking it and buying/selling it. 

And the tension between federal law and decriminalization is perhaps greatest in D.C. As Aaron C. Davis at the Post explains,

It remains unclear how overlapping local and federal jurisdictions will affect enforcement, particularly in national parks. Someone could be arrested under federal law, for instance, for possession on the Mall.

More than 20 federal law enforcement agencies operate out of D.C., and the U.S. Park Police routinely make marijuana arrests. In 2013, the police recorded 501 marijuana incidents. A spokesman for the force told the Post that she does not expect the park police to follow the city's lead with regards to decriminalization. The Capitol campus is also under federal jurisdiction, so anyone arrested for marijuana position there would likely face the current punishment: up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray supports decriminalization and is expected to sign the bill. (The measure passed the council 10 to 1.) And chances are slim that Congress will reject it. But the unique tensions between federal and district law in D.C. ensure that weed carriers still won't be home free when the bill becomes law. Still, D.C. councilman Tommy Wells (who is running for mayor) says the bill is a "step in the right direction" in a city that leads the nation in pot arrests.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.