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Pot Decriminalization Approved by Washington City Council

Marijuana Bud
At least 17 states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana recreational use or possession, putting them at odds with federal law. Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

The Washington city council voted to decriminalize marijuana consumption in private homes, adding the nation’s capital to a growing list of states that have loosened sanctions for using the drug.

The council yesterday approved reducing the punishment for possession of as much as an ounce of marijuana to a fine, instead of potential jail time. The bill goes to Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, who has said he will sign it, and the U.S. Congress, which can reject it.

At least 17 states have legalized or decriminalized recreational use or possession, putting them at odds with federal law. Washington state and Colorado have legalized the sale of the drug for recreational use, and advocates are pushing similar measures in other states.

“This is a victory for social justice and a major step for the nation’s capital,” Council Member Tommy Wells, a Democrat, said in a statement. “This bill is a tremendous stride to end the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests that keep our residents from jobs, higher education and housing opportunities.”

The council approved the measure 10-1, with one abstention.

Council members cited concern that the criminal penalties disproportionately affect blacks, who are statistically more likely to face arrest for drug charges than whites.

Congressional Oversight

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year ordered changes across the Justice Department to keep some nonviolent offenders from facing mandatory minimum sentences, which swelled the nation’s prison population during the decades-long crackdown on drugs.

Congress has oversight over the District of Columbia, the federal government seat that, according to the Constitution, isn’t part of any state. It has overturned Washington legislation only three times since 1973, most recently in 1991, according to Daniel van Hoogstraten, a spokesman for Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the city.

Norton’s office hasn’t heard from lawmakers opposed to the measure, he said. Norton said she would work to prevent efforts to block it.

“I do not expect members of Congress to interfere with D.C.’s local right to pass its own law on marijuana decriminalization,” Norton said in a statement. “If members try to interfere, however, I will stoutly defend D.C.’s right to pass such legislation, just as 17 states have already done.”

Congress to Look

Leaders of committees that oversee the district didn’t immediately comment on the legislation. Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail. Emily Spain, a spokeswoman for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in an e-mail she had no immediate comment.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, didn’t take a position on the measure when asked about it today by reporters.

“I really haven’t seen what the D.C. council did, but I’m sure we’ll look at it,” he said.

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