Bill Would Reduce Enormous Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice System
Last-Minute Amendments Weaken Bill; Advocates Warn That “Public Consumption” Provision Will Perpetuate Unfair and Costly Arrests
The D.C. Council took a major step to decriminalizing marijuana in the nation’s capital today by voting 11-1 in favor of a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and treat possession as a civil offense. The D.C. Council takes a final vote on the bill in early March; it is expected to pass and to be signed into law by the mayor. It is viewed by both council members and advocates as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“This is a major victory for advancing the cause of racial justice in D.C.,” said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. “The war on marijuana is largely a war on people of color and the D.C. Council is saying enough is enough.”
The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)” would eliminate 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.
Advocates expressed dismay, though, that an amendment approved during consideration of the bill would treat public consumption of marijuana as a criminal offense punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released groundbreaking reports documenting enormous racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession in D.C. These reports found that the majority of all drug arrests in the District are for simple possession of marijuana and the vast majority of the thousands arrested each year in the District are African American. African Americans in D.C. are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people – even though government surveys show that both groups use marijuana at similar rates.
Social justice advocates, faith leaders and members of the public have urged that this legislation protect residents of neighborhoods saturated with a heavy law enforcement from being unfairly and disproportionately subjected to arrest, police scrutiny, invasive searches, and the imposition of heavy fines that most white residents in affluent neighborhoods do not experience. Advocates urge that these policy goals are essential to changing and improving the relationship between the community and law enforcement.
A poll conducted in April 2013 by Public Policy Polling, and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project, found three out of four D.C. voters support changing District law to replace criminal penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana with a civil fine similar to a traffic ticket. A poll conducted in January by the Washington Post found that 63 percent of D.C. residents in support of not just decriminalizing marijuana, but also taxing and regulating it like alcohol. Recent national surveys by Gallup, Pew Research Center, CNN/ORC, CBS News and other outlets found a majority of Americans support legally regulating the production and sale of marijuana.
During today’s consideration of the bill, Councilmembers accepted an amendment offered by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-Chairman) that criminalizes public consumption of marijuana. This amendment stripped out the proposed $100 civil fine for smoking of marijuana in public places that was approved by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety last month. Advocates warn that treating public consumption of marijuana as a criminal offense weakens the effectiveness of a bill to end the mass arrest of people of color and poor residents of the District of Columbia. A civil fine allows the city to punish and deter people who consume marijuana in public. Criminalizing public consumption, however, means people will be arrested, possibly may lose their jobs, and will be saddled with lifelong convictions.
“We urge the council to consider making public consumption a civil fine instead of a criminal offense,” said Smith. “We can deter people from smoking marijuana in public without arresting them and branding them with a conviction that will make it difficult for them to find employment. This bill should end racial disparities not perpetuate them."