As legislation to both legalize and decriminalize marijuana makes its way to the Council of the District of Columbia, reform of laws regarding the drug has become an important issue for candidates in the mayoral race, with many just stopping short of calling for the drug’s full legalization.
On Jan. 15, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety unanimously passed a bill that would eliminate jail time and reduce the fine for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana to $25 — less than most parking tickets in the District.
As the bill is set to move to the full council Feb. 4, several candidates vying to become D.C.’s next mayor have framed the issue as one of many measures meant to reduce inequalities along racial and socioeconomic lines in the District.
While Mayor Vincent Gray, who is running for re-election, indicated support for the bill, he has stopped short of endorsing legalization of the drug. He did, however, indicate that he would support the voters if they were to approve a November ballot referendum legalizing marijuana.
Candidate and Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who authored the bill, cited disproportionately high arrest rates among poor and minority communities as one factor in its necessity.
“Ninety-one percent of all arrests for marijuana are minorities — predominantly African-American. We know that marijuana use is far more widespread than just in that community. What this bill does is take a major step forward in eradicating a social injustice for a particular group of residents in D.C,” Wells said, citing a 2010 American Civil Liberties Union study that stated that African-Americans were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in the District than any other race.
Fellow Councilmember and mayoral candidate Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has also signaled his support for the decriminalization bill.
“Serving a prison sentence for possessing a small amount of marijuana is something that’s been done in the past and just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Evans said.
Dwight Kirk, communications director for Busboys and Poets restaurateur Andy Shallal’s mayoral campaign, framed the decriminalization question in terms of addressing the needs of the poor communities of D.C.
“This is just the first step, and for those people that would just simply want to celebrate decriminalization, Andy would just ask them to look a little bit deeper and realize that this doesn’t address providing these communities with the opportunities they need to succeed. This is just the first step in a long process,” Kirk said.
Candidate and former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis echoed Wells’ and Kirk’s sentiments, but cautioned that policies could go too far and send the wrong message to the District’s youth.
“I would not go so far as to outwardly legalize marijuana, primarily because I never want to send a message to any kid that using drugs is OK — we need to disavow that notion immediately — but I do think we need to institute common sense approaches that are fair. Right now, it does not seem to me that the punishment fits the crime,” Lewis told The Hoya.
So far, Colorado and Washington are the only states where marijuana is legal for recreational purposes, following ballot referendums passed by voters in November 2012.
While neither Wells nor Shallal have openly endorsed marijuana legalization, both cited the need for the District to have autonomy from Congress on the matter and agreed they would support voters in the event of a referendum.
But for all the desire to see the District’s marijuana laws change, most candidates acknowledged that Congress, per its oversight of D.C., has the final say on whether or not the law is changed.
Susan Lagon, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown, believed that although Congress grants the District a certain degree of home rule with respect to self-legislation, legislators may not be as lenient on this topic.
“It was pretty straightforward with medicinal marijuana, which we’ve only had here for the past year or two, but decriminalization and legalization are a little different since it’s either a criminal issue or a social issue, depending on how you look at it,” Lagon said.
Lagon cast doubts on Congress’s willingness to allow major policy changes in light of the institution’s dysfunction over the past year.
“Do they really want to go into a re-election year saying, ‘We can’t get the budget balanced, but we’ve just decriminalized pot?’” Lagon said. “I think this is a situation where we would discount it by its improbability.”
Thus far, Congress has remained silent as to whether or not they would block the law. Legalization supporters speculate that Congress will allow D.C. voters to have the final say.
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Slate Magazine last week that he is optimistic about Congress allowing these kinds of laws to move forward.
“Even the old, reliable opponents have stopped talking about it. The more likely threat to the bill would be a rider, one of hundreds of lines slipped into a must-pass bill,” Riffle said to Slate.
Mayoral candidates and councilmembers Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) did not respond for comment for this article.