Possession and private use of marijuana will no longer be treated as a criminal offense in D.C. for individuals over 21 under a bill passed by the D.C. Council with a vote of 10 to one Tuesday, pending approval by Mayor Vincent Gray and Congress.

The bill will reduce the sentence for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine to a civil offense with a fine of $25; reduce the sentence for smoking marijuana in public from up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine to 60 days in jail; and disallow police from detaining, frisking, searching and arresting individuals based on possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or just on the smell of marijuana.

According to Grant Smith, policy manager for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, decriminalization of marijuana possession should result in fewer arrests across the District, thus saving taxpayer dollars and reducing the number of youths with arrest records.

“Our view is that marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol and should be available for adults, with proper regulations and with restrictions in place,” Smith said.

Legislative Counsel K.J. Bagchi, who spoke on behalf of Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), emphasized Graham’s support for the bill as a way to provide aid for youths struggling with substance abuse. “[Graham] understands that his focus has always been about better substance abuse treatment, and to have a system where we say, ‘Hey look, we’re going to decriminalize the use of marijuana ’” Bagchi said.

According to a 2013 report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, D.C. touts more marijuana arrests than any U.S. state, reaching 846 arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010, a marked increase from the national average of 256 arrests per 100,000 in the same year.

D.C. marijuana arrest records also reveal a high degree of racial disparity. According to a report by the Washington Lawyers Committee, 91 percent of drug arrests made from 2009 to 2011 in D.C. were of blacks. Eighty-seven percent of blacks in D.C. live in Wards 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, which is where seven out of 10 marijuana arrests were made.

Even though a much higher percentage of blacks are arrested for marijuana possession than whites, blacks and whites report using marijuana about equally. According to the ACLU report, in 2010, 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites had admitted to using marijuana in the past year.

“Those two reports actually are what really served as impetus for this legislation to move through the council,” Smith said.

Councilmember Tommy Wells (D- Ward 6) agreed that the racial disparities in these two reports were important factors in getting this bill passed. He said that he hopes the bill’s emphasis on social justice will help it advance through Congress.

“But with Congress sitting on our shoulder, I’m crossing my fingers to see if I can get decriminalization through. I feel like I’ve handled it in a way that I’ve made it about social justice, instead of a right to smoke pot,” Wells said in an interview with The Hoya’s editorial board regarding his mayoral candidacy.

As lead sponsor of the bill, Wells also voiced his support for the legislation as a means of curbing the racial inequality of marijuana arrests.

“This bill is a tremendous stride to end the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests that keep our residents from jobs, higher education and housing opportunities. The evidence of racial disparities in arrests and the failures of the war on drugs are undeniable and the negative socioeconomic impacts on African American residents are indisputable,” Wells said in a press release. The legislation enjoyed nearly full support from the D.C. Council, as Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) was the only member to vote against the legislation.

“There will not be any reduction in the amount of arrests because there will still be arrests when someone is smoking marijuana on the corner or when someone is selling marijuana on the corner,” Alexander told The Washington Post.

The D.C. Council chose not to take the opportunity to decriminalize public use of marijuana, sale of marijuana or possession of over an ounce of the drug in their ruling Tuesday. Grant agreed with Alexander that, until these three offenses are decriminalized, arrests will continue to happen.

“All three of these things are going to continue to drive an underground economy, an illegal underground economy, that’s going to continue to result in arrests, convictions, life-long records for people in D.C., and it runs contrary to what D.C. residents want, and that is a legal tax and regulated market for adults to buy marijuana, similar to what we’ve seen in Colorado and Washington,” Grant said.

The legislation, once signed by Gray, who expressed his intent to sign the bill, will go through Congress for a 60-day review period. Only three bills since 1979 have been rejected at this stage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *