The D.C. Council’s 10-1 vote to decriminalize marijuana is a welcome step to improving consistency in the enforcement of the city’s drug laws. While it is an encouraging sign that Mayor Vincent Gray (D) is expected to sign the bill into law, the District would do well to go further in its search for a just and efficient policy by legalizing the drug.
According to an ACLU study, the District’s marijuana crime per capita arrest rate is among the highest in the country. Fourteen percent of black D.C. residents and 12 percent of white D.C. residents admit to using marijuana. However, black arrests for marijuana possession outnumbered white arrests eight to one in 2010. The council decided to reduce sentences for possession of marijuana from fines reaching into the thousands and prison time of up to six months to a $25 fine; this is founded in a sound concern for social justice in D.C.
The D.C. Council is correct that the policies of the status quo are broken. As evidenced by the District’s eight-to-one arrest ratio, it is clear that any tax dollars devoted to the prosecution of marijuana users are tax dollars funding discrimination against the city’s minorities.
Decriminalization breaks the tie between marijuana usage and socially destructive patterns of policing and arrest, reaffirming police officers’ focus on protecting and serving the people in their neighborhoods and preventing more serious crimes. However, while decriminalization will help to fight the trend toward discrimination in law enforcement, it will not eradicate it. Only legalization will fully prevent unequal enforcement, even if that enforcement is only of a small fine.
Decriminalization takes a valuable step forward, but the playing field is not yet leveled for all District residents. With the recent legalizations of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, D.C. should take the opportunity to profit off what is currently illegal economic activity and reorient law enforcement efforts toward community priorities.