The Nation's Capital Decriminalizes Marijuana

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March 5, 2014 - By Bill Piper

Congress may still be a few steps behind the voters when it comes to marijuana law reform but our nation’s capital just passed one of the most far-reaching marijuana decriminalization laws in the country. The D.C. Council voted 10 to 1 today to pass Councilmember Tommy Wells bill eliminating marijuana possession arrests and reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The legislation is a stepping-stone to even greater reform.

The D.C. bill makes possession and transfer without remuneration of up to an ounce of marijuana a $25 ticket, similar to various D.C. parking violations (the police also confiscate your marijuana). This is the lowest fine in the nation, except for outright legalization like in Colorado and Washington. (The law doesn’t change federal penalties so it’s still a crime to possess marijuana on federal property).

The bill prohibits marijuana possession or the odor of marijuana from being used as grounds to search someone, their belongings, or their property with only a few exceptions (DUI being one of them). This will greatly curtail stop-and-frisk in D.C. as many police officers use the claim that a young black man “smells like marijuana” as an excuse to search them for no reason.

The bill ensures that the city doesn’t deny public assistance to people simply for possessing marijuana. It also removes marijuana possession or testing positive for marijuana as a reason to revoke parole or probation, unless the judge in the case specifically includes marijuana in his orders (such as in a case where a person is arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana).

The original bill would have decriminalized public consumption, making it a $100 ticket. Unfortunately it was changed to make smoking marijuana in public a criminal offense similar to consuming alcohol in public. This will perpetuate racial disparities as most arrests for public consumption (of alcohol or marijuana) are against people of color.

There are three reasons why the passing of this local bill is important nationally. First, it’s happening in the nation’s capital and Congress has 60 workdays to overturn it. It’s possible Congress might interfere - it overturned a medical marijuana initiative approved by the voters in 1998, for instance. But increasingly members of Congress in both parties support reform or at the very least are smart enough not to oppose something that a majority of voters want. And besides, Congress is probably too dysfunctional to overturn the D.C. law.

Second, the D.C. law is one of the best, if not the best, decrim laws in the country. It has a low fine, prevents law enforcement from unfairly singling out people of color, and protects the privacy rights of all citizens. It’s a model for other jurisdictions.

Third, unlike many states that have adopted marijuana law reform the debate in D.C. was driven nearly entirely by concerns about racial disparities and the fact that thousands of mostly black men are having a hard time getting jobs because they have a marijuana conviction on their record.

D.C. didn’t decriminalize marijuana because councilmembers believe marijuana is safer than alcohol or because they believe people have a right to smoke marijuana. They decriminalized marijuana because it is an issue of racial equality and social justice. Policymakers in other big cities should follow their lead.

Next on the agenda is passing legislation that will seal the records of people previously convicted of marijuana possession and building support for legislation to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. D.C. voters may also vote on an initiative in November that will legalize possession and growing your own marijuana in your home.

In a recent poll, 54 percent of D.C. residents said people shouldn’t be arrested for possessing any kind of drug, so there’s even an opportunity to decriminalize all drugs and treat drug use as a health issues instead of a criminal justice issue.

The opportunities locally, and nationally, are endless.

Bill Piper is the director of the office of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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