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Public Statements

Home Rule for the District of Columbia

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Ms. NORTON. Mr. Speaker, I come to the floor this afternoon because of interference in the local affairs of the District of Columbia that is about to take place pursuant to a hearing that has been called by the Government Operations Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

First, let me be clear. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, has been respectful of self-government in the District of Columbia. Chairman Issa has not only observed the same self-government for our District that he insists upon for his, but he has gone beyond that to encourage greater home rule and budget autonomy for the District of Columbia. This subcommittee hearing is not done under the aegis of the full committee but, rather, under the leadership of the subcommittee chair, John Mica.

The respect for local control lies at the heart of the formation of the United States of America, itself. It was the denial of that respect that led to the Revolution and to formation of the United States. Essentially, at that time, when Americans were saying taxes are a matter for local jurisdictions, it meant the United States, and when the Constitution, itself, was drawn, the Framers were at pains to separate out local matters over which the Federal Government would have no say and no control.

Mr. Speaker, I understand that the House, of course, as well as the Senate, maintain some control over the District of Columbia that Congress does not have over other jurisdictions. I assert what should be clear in that illegitimate control, but at the very least, I respect and thank Members who have not gone out of their way not to violate their own principles of local government in order to exercise that control, as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, under Chairman Issa, has been clear to avoid. In short, don't have hearings on the District of Columbia--that's for the District of Columbia City Council.

The Government Operations Subcommittee has called for a hearing on Wednesday on the recently decriminalized marijuana law in the District of Columbia. It is important to note that there are Federal and State matters that are implicated in this hearing. The subcommittee has held two hearings on those implications because of the conflict between State and local law that is emerging very rapidly on marijuana possession--but look at what the subcommittee did in its two prior committee hearings:

In one hearing, it called a U.S. attorney, who is a Federal official. It was a U.S. attorney from a district in Colorado and in addition, an official from the Drug Enforcement Administration. In another hearing, it called only one witness, the Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Do note that each and every one of these officials was legitimately called as a Federal official.

Why was no official from the State of Colorado called? There was no State official, no local official--only a Federal official from the State of Colorado. The reason is clear: Colorado would have taken umbrage at the audacity of this body to dare call them to account on their own local laws.

Be on notice that we take the same umbrage. We will not silently allow this Congress or its committees and subcommittees to interfere in our local affairs, and on this matter, we are standing on very solid ground.

Eighteen States went quite ahead of the District and decriminalized their marijuana laws. ``Decriminalization'' means that a fine rather than prison results from the possession of marijuana. Twenty States proceeded to enact medical marijuana laws, which to enable people who have certain medical conditions to get medical marijuana. It took me 11 years to remove--or to get the Congress to remove--an amendment that kept the District from allowing its own citizens to have access to medical marijuana at a time when we had a runaway HIV-AIDS problem, where medical marijuana had been helpful. I was finally able to do that. Two States of the Union--Washington and Colorado--have legalized marijuana.

How dare any committee or subcommittee call the District of Columbia local officials--any local official--to testify on our local law? I will get to why we enacted that law in one moment.

Let me say who preceded us and who has not been called before this House or any committee or subcommittee of this House even though they have done either precisely the same thing or have gone even further than D.C. I am going to call the roll, Mr. Speaker, so you will know the company in which we find ourselves and why we insist upon treatment without discrimination, because we are the exact equivalent of other American citizens:

Alaska: going back more than almost 40 years now--decriminalized marijuana. No penalty for use in one's home. Actually, that is further than decriminalization. That legalized marijuana in one's home;

California: a $100 fine. Some of these are quite old, these laws. More recently, there has come a flood of marijuana laws changes.

Colorado: no penalty. Of course, there are different amounts involved, and most of these involve people over 21;

Connecticut: a $150 fine;

Maine: as low as a $350 fine, as high as a $1,000 fine depending on the amount;

Maryland, $100 fine; Massachusetts, $100 fine; Minnesota, $300 fine; Mississippi, $100 to $250 fine; Nebraska, $300 fine. That goes back to 1978, by the way. Nevada, $600 fine; New York, $100 fine; North Carolina, up to $200 fine; Ohio, $150 fine; Oregon, $650 fine; Rhode Island, $150 fine; Vermont, up to $200 in fines; and the State of Washington, no penalty for those 21 or older.

What has the District of Columbia done? Its decriminalization involves a $25 fine instead of a criminal misdemeanor, penalty of up to 6 months in jail, and as much as a $1,000 fine. It also prohibits law enforcement from using the smell of marijuana as grounds for stopping and searching a resident.

The reason for the low fine is that the District faced the possibility--in fact, very real possibility--that if it didn't have a low fine, it would end up with another disparity, namely, those who could afford the fine would not go to jail, and those who could not would.

I want to say something about why going to jail becomes so important. First, let me quote the President, who said:

Middle class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot and poor kids do. And African American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.

What the President said in general should be understood in particular in the District of Columbia, and I suspect in many States as well because the problem of disparity in enforcement is nationwide.

The District of Columbia is a very progressive jurisdiction, and it is very racially sensitive. We have a population that is about half Black and half White, about 10 percent Latino, very progressive. And yet, in the progressive District of Columbia, African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Whites.

Understand that, in the District of Columbia as across the country, Blacks and Whites use marijuana at the same rate. Why then are African Americans eight times more likely to be arrested? I can only guess. Sometimes they live in high-crime areas where there may be more police out on the street.

Notice that the legislation bars arresting someone because an officer smells marijuana on the person. Of course, if that is the reason for an arrest, what you can do is take somebody in who has violated no law except possession of a small amount of marijuana--and all of the amounts we are talking about are small amounts--and what happens is that that an African American or White person or any other resident has a criminal record for the rest of his or her life. For an African American, that matters.

We have a whole generation particularly of young men who, with that first arrest, are essentially ruled out of the job market because they have a ``drug possession arrest.'' That drug possession is a small amount of marijuana. That ruins that young man's life not only for work, but as the world turns, for the opportunity to have a good marriage, to raise children, and for African Americans to have a stable community, all beginning with one marijuana possession arrest.

The result may be to lead this person, frankly, into a life of criminal activity. You can't get work because you have a drug possession arrest on your record. And if you can't get work and you need money, what can you do? What you often do is you go from possessing marijuana, as many young people do, to the next level, to distributing it or otherwise being involved in criminal activity.

We don't have to go this way.

I suspect that some of the jurisdictions that have decriminalized marijuana have done so--and you will notice they are very diverse--simply because they are more libertarian, a bit more open to what they see around them, which is that people engage in alcohol consumption as much as they do, in smoking marijuana, at least as much. We learned the hard way that you don't put people in jail when it comes to drinking alcohol or even distributing it.

I want to be clear. I do not and will never advocate the smoking of pot, don't think it is a good thing, don't think being high is fine. I also don't think drinking alcohol is a good thing, but I wouldn't want to put anybody in jail for it. If someone is unfortunate enough to develop a habit, I want to do what we do with people who develop that habit with alcohol and try to get them off that habit.

Look. It is a free society. We cannot keep everybody from every sin, but we don't lock them up in the jails. That is why you find State after State opening their jails and letting out people who have been convicted of drug possession, don't want to ruin lives, particularly what amounts to young lives.

We feel very deeply about this. If I may say so, I think every jurisdiction that has passed these laws feels deeply about it and would tell Congress which way to go if Congress came anywhere close to their local laws. I am not going to tell Congress which way to go. I am just going to tell Congress: Don't mess with our marijuana laws. And the reason I have to say that to the Congress is because Congress can.

This hearing could be the first step toward overturning D.C.'s marijuana law. Usually when they try to overturn one of our laws, they don't give us a hearing. They just try to do it in some sneaky way.

This hearing is for show. But it is a dangerous hearing because it is about a real law and real people and real racial disparity and, yes, real discrimination against my district because we have been pulled out as no other jurisdiction has been.

I want to compliment those Members on the floor from the other side who were consistent with their own principles yesterday. There was a marijuana amendment on the floor yesterday, and the full details of it I don't have before me, but I recall it would allow prescription by Veterans Administration physicians for medical marijuana for certain wounded veterans because of the finding that it has a beneficial effect on some of their concerns, especially nausea and other kinds of conditions they bring back with them.

The vote was divided, but I looked at the members of the subcommittee who will be hearing on Wednesday about cannibus laws in the District of Columbia. There are seven members of that subcommittee; and two Republicans on that subcommittee, that seven-Member subcommittee, voted to respect states' rights and voted, in effect, to allow States to do what is necessary when it came to medical marijuana for veterans.

Yes, the parties are coming together on this issue, and for that reason it makes no sense whatsoever to have a divisive hearing that calls out one local jurisdiction--the weakest in the country because the District of Columbia has no Senators, because while I vote in committee, whatever you do to my District or even for my District, I cannot vote on it on this floor.

I can tell you this. As a result of this hearing and because the D.C. decriminalization bill has to lay over here for 60 days before it becomes final, it is still here, I have alerted my allies throughout the country, and particularly in those States which have decriminalized marijuana or legalized it. So if any Member of this House ever gets oversight over this matter and dares to vote that the District can't decriminalize cannibus, even though their citizens have the opposite right, we will call them out.

I don't believe that kind of hypocrisy exists in this House, nor do I know whether there is any attempt to try to overturn our laws. I have to come to the floor proactively, my friends, because Members don't exactly come to me ahead of time and tell me when they want to perform the illegitimate act of overturning a local law in the District of Columbia. So I am calling them out right now: Don't you dare to seek to countermand the elected, the democratically elected D.C. council which has decided what is best for its citizens, particularly if your own jurisdiction--and I have called your names--has decided that some form of marijuana possession decriminalization or legalization should occur in yours.

Even for those of you who come from parts of the United States which have not changed their marijuana laws, let me say to you: I respect that your local jurisdictions, your State jurisdiction has not acted in that way. There are real issues here. We don't want people smoking marijuana to end up where people who smoke cigarettes did.

A lot of what is being done now, the city is already holding hearings on the law's effects, is putting in place measures that would have the effect of not only alerting people to the problems of smoking anything, but keeping this matter from being excessive. Smoking pot perhaps has more of a chance of being excessive at least among young people if it is barred. I am not so sure now that it is allowed in so many States, a third of the States, that you will have nearly the excitement about smoking pot as you did before it was decriminalized.

Whatever is the result is not for a national legislature, not in America where local matters get decided by local folks. Yes, there is a conflict with Federal law. That is for the Federal Government in its implementation of drug laws to take care of.

And if you want to somehow go out against these States which are rapidly decriminalizing marijuana laws--you have got to come after all of them, not just one--that is what I am here to say. We don't intend to be the outlier that Congress uses to prove its point about marijuana.

We demand respect for the principles for which the Constitution stands. Nothing in the Constitution says anything about respecting local control, except for the District of Columbia. The Framers left some control of D.C. matters with Congress, but certainly not the kind of control that would be exercised here. The Congress on its own decided that even the control that the Framers left in the Congress, it would never exercise, when it passed 40 years ago the Home Rule Act of the District of Columbia.

The Home Rule Act says that matters of local law are for the local jurisdiction of the District of Columbia, just as they are for the local jurisdiction of each of the 50 States. That was a landmark law. We intend that it will be respected. No hearing called, however illegitimate as this hearing is, is enough to override that law and its intent.

That law needs to be expanded, not sat upon with a hearing that picks out one local law. It needs to be expanded so that the 100 percent of local funds raised in the District of Columbia don't have to come before a national body before we can spend our own money, as if you were the masters of our local funds--almost $4 billion of it raised from local citizens and local businesses.

You want to bring us before you on Federal funds? Be my guest. But don't come to the District of Columbia when it comes to its own money. And don't come to the District of Columbia when it comes to its own laws.

Nobody in this House can speak with any credibility to the reasons, and they are legion, but don't forget the most important reason that the District decided to decriminalize its laws. It didn't even legalize marijuana, as two States have done; it decriminalized them.

It is a modest step, it is a responsible step. And it is a step taken in the face of horrific evidence, shameful evidence, that showed that, essentially, the only people that got arrested in the District of Columbia for marijuana possession are Black people. That is an outrage. The council had to do something about it. Just as the other States, for whatever reasons, have decided to move for local reasons, our council has moved for entirely local reasons.

We ask you to respect that move, especially when it comes to what I am sure will be countless lives of African American citizens in the District of Columbia that will now have a chance, at least, to escape from penalties of law enforcement, to live a fruitful life because they will not start off in life with marijuana possession penalties that ruin their entire lives.

We ask for equality of treatment. We are equal citizens under the law. If your citizens were treated unequally, each and every Member of this House would be on this floor. I come in that spirit, and I come asking for the very same respect.

I yield back the balance of my time.

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