Congressional Interference Comes After D.C. Lawmakers Decriminalize Marijuana to Ease Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System
Washington, D.C. – Republicans may offer an amendment to a federal appropriations bill tomorrow morning that would prevent the District of Columbia from implementing the marijuana decriminalization law recently passed by the D.C. City Council and signed into law by the mayor in March. The amendment would prohibit spending federal funds or even its locally raised funds to carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce criminal penalties for marijuana.
Advocates decry this possible attempt by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee that would interfere and potentially block efforts by D.C. lawmakers to eliminate racial disparities that have long persisted in the enforcement of D.C.’s marijuana laws.
“D.C. lawmakers recently decriminalized marijuana possession because the people of the District of Columbia demanded an end to the disproportionate arrest of African Americans for small amounts of marijuana,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, D.C. policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. “Any effort by Congress that would block D.C.’s efforts to reform its marijuana laws denies the people of the Nation’s Capital the democratic right to pursue racial and social justice.”
The underlying bill that could be amended with this amendment will be marked up at 10am on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, in 2359 Rayburn House Office Building.
The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014” is comprehensive legislation that was passed 10-1 by the D.C. City Council earlier this year. It eliminates the threat of arrest for possessing marijuana and ensure that people are no longer saddled with life-long convictions that make it difficult to obtain employment and housing. Instead of arresting people, the bill would impose a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it.
This new law is viewed by both council members and advocates as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. By setting a $25 fine, which is the lowest civil fine for possession among seventeen states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, Councilmembers cited the need to be responsive to social factors such as homelessness in the District and high rates of poverty in Wards that have seen the greatest number of marijuana arrests.
In accordance with federal law, the legislation was transmitted by the D.C. Council to Congress for a period of time for review. If Congress does not take action on the legislation then it is expected to become law in the District of Columbia next month.