Today, Mayor Vincent Gray approved legislation passed by D.C. Councilmembers on March 4th that would eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in the nation’s capital and treat possession as a civil offense subject to a small fine. In accordance with federal law, the legislation will not become law until it has been transmitted by the D.C. Council to Congress and available for a period of time for review that is expected to stretch into the summer months. If Congress does not take action on the legislation then it becomes law in the District of Columbia. This legislation is viewed by both council members and advocates as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“D.C. lawmakers heard loud and clear the public’s demand to end marijuana arrests and passed one of the strongest decriminalization laws in the whole country,” said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. “We don’t expect members of Congress to object to saving taxpayer dollars and advancing racial justice here in the nation’s capital.”
The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)” is comprehensive legislation that was passed 10-1 by the D.C. City Council earlier this month. It eliminates 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. By setting a $25 fine, which is the lowest civil fine for possession among seventeen states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, Councilmembers cited the need to be responsive to social factors such as homelessness in the District and high rates of poverty in Wards that have seen the greatest number of marijuana arrests. Advocates have praised Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) for authoring and securing passage of this legislation through the Council.
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“The marijuana law, when signed by the mayor, will help end an unconscionable injustice: A Black resident of the District is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite using the drug at roughly the same rates. This law will prohibit police from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for conducting criminal searches — the first decriminalization legislation in the country to do so, and a critical blow against the War on Drugs,” said Seema Sadanandan with the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.
In a statement, Collective Power, a grassroots alliance of District residents concerned about the disproportionate criminalization and discrimination of communities of color, said: “Passage of this law gets to the unspoken imbalances in our justice system for people of color and it is the voice of the people who ensured its passage. The District of Columbia must be at the forefront of decriminalizing ‘being black and brown’ and this is the start.”
“The passing of the Decriminalization Marijuana Bill is the first step in the right direction to dismantling the immoral war on drugs that has devastated communities of color,” said Rev. Kelly D. Wilkins with Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ.
“I congratulate Mayor Gray for signing this practical reform that should result in fewer people being burdened with a trip to the courthouse for small amounts of marijuana. More people than ever are hopeful the Mayor will next support full legalization,” said Adam Eidinger with the DC Cannabis Campaign.
“Thanks to the passage of this legislation, we will no longer see thousands of District residents being arrested for marijuana each year and subsequently being legally denied access to education, employment, and housing. This is a moral victory and it is also a budgetary victory, since people with drug convictions are much more likely to have to rely on city services and this legislation should decrease those numbers,” said Ericka Taylor with the Fair Budget Coalition.
“HIPS thanks the D.C. City Council and the Mayor for this critical step towards reducing criminalization of low income individuals and people of color in our city and for allowing our city to address marijuana as a personal and public health issue, not a criminal one,” said Cyndee Clay with HIPS.
“Although I do not advocate or condone the use of marijuana, I support this bill because far too many our people have been targeted, locked up, thrown away and placed outside of our society due to a small amount of marijuana,” said Reverend George C. Gilbert, Jr. with Holy Trinity United Baptist Church.
“This bill is one of the first measures to address racial profiling in drug arrests, both procedurally and substantively. We are confident that Congress shares the District’s concerns about disparities in enforcement and the disturbing trends we are seeing nationwide,” said Patrice Amandla Sulton with the NAACP DC Branch.
“The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights applauds Mayor Gray and the D.C. Council for this significant first step in addressing the striking racial disparities and discriminatory impact so evident in our city’s drug enforcement policies and criminal justice system,” said Rod Boggs with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital 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.
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 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.
D.C. Councilmembers are also considering two marijuana policy reform measures that have been proposed by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large). Council Bill 20-467 would automatically seal marijuana-related arrest and conviction records that hinder the ability for thousands of District residents to secure employment, housing, public assistance and other basic needs. Council Bill 20-466 would implement a system of taxation and regulation of adult sales of marijuana similar to policies in place in Colorado and Washington State.