Washington D.C. on the Verge of Ending Marijuana Possession Arrests

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January 15, 2014 - By Maggie Taylor

Right now, a conviction for marijuana possession in Washington, D.C. can lead to six months in jail and a $1000 fine. But soon, the penalty may be as little as a $25 ticket.

That’s because today, the Council of the District of Columbia made a giant step toward decriminalizing marijuana when a panel of five out of thirteen Councilmembers voted unanimously to replace criminal penalties for possession with civil fines comparable to receiving a parking ticket (as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and paraphernalia). With today’s vote, the District of Columbia is poised to join 17 states that have already decriminalized marijuana. It’s a symbolically significant move as well: people from all over the world visit D.C. to see our monuments, learn about our country’s history, and observe democracy in action; it’s very important to know that, once this legislation is passed, people will no longer be subject to arrest and a criminal record for possession of a small amount of marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol building.

Today’s vote is a huge win for racial justice, coming on the heels of groundbreaking studies released by the ACLU and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs that document the tremendous racial disparities in marijuana arrests in Washington, D.C. Black D.C. residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for possession than white residents (even though we know blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates). With the tremendous collateral consequences that stem from a marijuana arrest – including barriers to housing and employment – decriminalization is a critical first step toward bringing D.C. law in line with common sense and justice.

For years, D.C. legislators have been cagey about marijuana reform because Congress has ultimate authority over District law. But with major reforms occurring elsewhere in the United States, Congress tied up with partisan rancor, and the Department of Justice taking a more pragmatic approach to marijuana enforcement, Councilmembers are seizing the opportunity to make a change. Councilmember Wells’ leadership as the sponsor of this measure has been especially laudable, and his efforts have brought the harms of failed D.C. marijuana laws to the forefront of the local conversation about reform. Once implemented, this decriminalization measure will not only reduce policing and legal costs to the city, but help reduce the undeniable racial disparities associated with marijuana enforcement in D.C.

We know that the tide is turning on marijuana; in D.C., 75% of voters support decriminalization, and 64% want to legalize marijuana. And the Council isn’t stopping at decriminalization: they’ll soon be considering a bill to seal the records of people convicted of nonviolent marijuana possession. A ballot initiative to legalize marijuana possession in the District of Columbia has been filed. And Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) has introduced a bill to tax and regulate marijuana.

This isn’t the end of the road for reform, and there is more work to be done, but for today, it’s fantastic to see the D.C. Council take this important first step toward ending costly and ineffective prohibition policies.

Maggie Taylor is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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