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DC Close to Decriminalizing Marijuana, Maintains Public Consumption as a Criminal Offense

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On Tuesday, the DC city council voted 11 to 1 to decriminalize marijuana possession in the nation’s capital.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News, and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Tuesday, the D.C. city council voted 11 to 1 to decriminalize marijuana possession in the nation’s capital. However, the bill was watered down with an amendment that would keep public consumption a criminal offense punishable by up to 60 days in prison and a $500 fine. The council will vote again on the measure within the next month—expected to pass it. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has already said that he will sign the bill into law.

Now joining us to discuss this is Leigh Maddox. She’s a retired Maryland State Police captain, board member of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). She’s also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and deputy director for the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

Thank you so much for joining us.


NOOR: So, Leigh, some groups are saying this is a major victory, but this bill was watered down. What’s your response? Because public consumption is still a criminal offense in D.C., and we know studies have shown that even though the usage rates of marijuana are similar between African Americans and whites—and, for example, in places like D.C., the arrest rates for African Americans are eight times higher.

MADDOX: So we know that New York has had decriminalization on the books since the 1970s, and we know that we’ve seen the disparities in New York City similar to what we’ve seen in all major cities across the United States. And the problem with—in my opinion, the problem with making public consumption criminal is it’s going to continue to pump people into the system at a disparate rate.

NOOR: And who is this going to impact the most, the fact that public consumption is still a criminal offense?

MADDOX: Well, it’s going to impact poor people. It’s going to impact people who are homeless. It’s going to impact people who may live in a very crowded environment, where they don’t have a safe place where they can access marijuana. And ultimately it’s going to extend white privilege further to those who aren’t in that situation.

NOOR: And so you’re not just talking about this in theory. You’re a 30-year veteran of the Maryland state police force. So talk about how for a police officer, how this affects a police officer doing their job, doing their duty to this country.

MADDOX: Well, for me, decriminalization makes things more confusing. I personally believe a legalization, regulation, and tax control model would be much cleaner from an enforcement perspective. Right now, you know, how do you know if someone is—and what is public? I don’t know. For me, it makes things more confusing and much more difficult for your average police officer to really understand what the law is.

NOOR: And so, you know, we’ve seen a wave of states either decriminalizing or fully legalizing it and taxing it, like we’ve seen in Colorado and Washington. But the mayor of Baltimore has come out and opposed decriminalization and legalization, saying it’s really a distraction from what community members are more concerned about, which is reducing violent crime. So what’s your response to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake?

MADDOX: Well, I have a great deal of respect for the mayor. I think she’s trying to do the best she can for the city. But I also think she’s not seeing the big picture in this.

We know, from alcohol prohibition during the 1920s, the outright prohibition actually fueled the violence. And we’re seeing the same thing now. I mean, it’s great—decriminalization is great in terms of the average user might not get a criminal arrest, but it will do absolutely nothing to curtail the violence and the drug cartels and everything that goes along with the fact that you have an unregulated and uncontrolled and very-much-demand product.

NOOR: And in Baltimore we’ve had a record number of killings, starting off this year.

MADDOX: We have.

NOOR: Dozens of people have been killed.


NOOR: So talk about how legalizing marijuana could help—and other drugs, possibly—how that could help stem this violence and help, you know, free up the police force to do real crime and deal with these violent criminals.

MADDOX: Sure. Part of the spike we’re seeing right now in the violent activity, I believe, is related to the large takedown of the Black Guerrilla gang earlier this year, and, of course, it created, you know, a market. And what happens when you have an illegal market and now all of a sudden there’s plenty of work? And so folks were jumping in and fighting each other for control and domination here in the city.

NOOR: How can legalization help stem this violence?

MADDOX: Sure. Well, first of all you take the market out of the hands of the criminals and you put the market into the hands of people who have regulations they have to follow. We all know that drug dealers don’t check for ID. You can put in all sorts of time, place, and manner restrictions so that our kids aren’t exposed. And, you know, if the drug cartels aren’t making a profit, they’re going to move on to something else.

NOOR: And so why don’t politicians get it? Because the majority of the people in this country, studies have shown they support legalization and taxing this. We know cities like Baltimore are in a deficit crisis. They need more funding for education. But where does this opposition come from? Who are the groups that have a vested interest in maintaining prohibition?

MADDOX: Well, the prison-industrial complex and all the players involved with that, obviously. The court system, to a certain extent. Law enforcement. Correctional guards. It is so pervasive, our drug policies, that if you actually go in and look at all the different code and all the different places where it touches Americans, there’s a lot of people that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

But polling numbers are starting to show a big turnaround. And I think politicians individually do get it. They’re just waiting for the numbers to support them to where they have enough cover that they can come out and do the right thing by the people.

NOOR: Leigh Maddox, thank you so much for joining us.

MADDOX: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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