The D.C. Council is poised to pass a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana in the District.
The “Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013” was introduced by mayoral candidate and councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and councilmember and former Mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) in July. It seeks to eliminate criminal penalties for those caught with less than one ounce of marijuana and to reduce the fine to $100. The current penalty is a six-month jail sentence, a permanent criminal record citation and a $1,000 fine.
The bill is supported by six other council members — Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large) — and needs seven votes out of 13 to go to Mayor Vincent Gray for approval. If Gray signs the bill, it must receive congressional approval.
To collect more information, Barry and Wells, who is chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, held two rounds of hearings this week during which the public had the opportunity to speak on the issue. During these hearings, Gray publically announced his support of marijuana decriminalization for the first time.
“I support decriminalization,” Gray said. “Legalization is another issue. I’m not there on that issue, yet.”
Wells attributed the need for decriminalization to the racial implications of marijuana arrests in the District. According to Wells, approximately 91 percent of people arrested in D.C. on marijuana-related charges are black.
“It’s simply not fair,” he said. “Not only is it not fair, these people who are charged with penalties are unable to find employment because of their criminal record. It’s not smart.”
Grosso, who in September introduced his own legislation to completely legalize marijuana in the District, agreed.
“Racial disparity is high in issues involving illegal drug possession,” Grosso said. “It’s not a matter of being illegal anymore. It’s a means through which decriminalization is funnelled, and it’s a failure of our war on drugs.”
Barry drew from his own personal experiences to support this point.
“[D.C.] made national news headlines in 2010: We arrested 5,000 people, predominantly African-American, for mere possession of marijuana,” Barry said.
Councilmembers expressed particular concern about the consequences faced by those convicted of marijuana possession. As marijuana-related arrests are listed as permanent criminal records, students arrested for possession become ineligible to apply for financial aid, and arrests have similarly grave consequences for adults.
“Thousands of people are being stripped of their healthcare benefits, becoming ineligible to apply for jobs and unable to apply for housing,” Wells said. “This has to change.”
Supporters of the bill pointed to research on the limited effects of marijuana on health.
“Scientific knowledge of the effects of marijuana has increased dramatically over the past few years, and now we know that marijuana is no more harmful and addictive than alcohol,” Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety Andrew Fois testified.
According to Fois, marijuana is the third most used substance in the United States, with alcohol and tobacco first and second, respectively. Fois reported that 25 million people were reported to have used marijuana in the past year.
A Gallup report released Tuesday showed that 58 percent of Americans currently support the legalization of marijuana, a significant increase from 12 percent in 1969, when the question was first asked.
Specifically, D.C. Cannabis Campaign Chairman Adam Eidinger reported that 75 percent of District residents support decriminalization, with 64 percent supporting legalization of marijuana in general.
Furthermore, Grosso pointed to the fact that marijuana decriminalization is quickly becoming a national trend. Over the past 30 years, 17 states have already decriminalized the use of marijuana to some extent. Washington and Colorado passed initiatives that legalized marijuana in November 2012.
Despite this push toward decriminalization, Grosso emphasized the importance of discouraging marijuana use for juveniles and students.
“Above all, we need to educate the young and constantly send the message that marijuana is still dangerous and addictive, even if we decriminalize it,” Grosso said.
Fois agreed and said that although he supported the bill, it needed to preserve some aspects of the original penalties, such as maintaining smoking marijuana on sidewalks, in parks or in other public spaces with children present as a criminal offense.
Nevertheless, Grosso, who has historically been one of the District’s most fervent advocates for the complete legalization of marijuana, said he would continue to push for the legislation he introduced to the D.C. Council in late September.
“The bill is not going to be radical and legalize marijuana, but it’s definitely a huge first step in making legalization happen, and I’m going to continue pushing for that,” Grosso said.