The DC City Council passed a measure Tuesday to remove criminal penalties for possession of small marijuana quantities. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) is expected to sign the measure.
The measure comes after an ACLU study of marijuana arrests found that African Americans are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana in the District of Columbia, even though they use the drug at similar rates. Nationwide, the disparity is 4 to 1. The bill imposes only a civil fine and no criminal penalty on those possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. The $25 fine is less expensive than the penalty in the 17 states that already have decriminalization laws, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The law also authorizes police to seize marijuana found on a person, or any drug paraphernalia. In an amendment to the initial bill, however, public smoking will remain subject to criminal penalty.
Unlike the recreational marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado, decriminalization measures only remove criminal penalties with possession. They do not, however, legalize or regulate distribution and growth — a component viewed as key by legalization supporters to driving out the black market and controlling public health consequences of marijuana consumption. D.C. already has a medical marijuana law.
In some cities like New York, decriminalization of marijuana hasn’t stopped police from finding ways to make arrests for small-time possession. Because public possession is still a crime, cops who perform notorious stop-and-frisks reportedly take marijuana out of an individual’s pocket during a search, and then arrest the individual for having the marijuana in public view. Marijuana is the number one reason for arrest after a New York Police Department stop-and-frisk.
A bill has already been introduced to fully legalize recreational marijuana in the district. And a recent Washington Post poll found that 63 percent of District residents support “legalization” of marijuana possession, and another 16 percent support a civil fine like the one in the decriminalization bill. Mayor Gray has been hesitant to support legalization, saying, “I’m not there on that issue. yet.”
Another bill now pending before the council would automatically seal marijuana-related arrest and conviction records, which can impede access to employment, housing, and public benefits. The D.C. law will not go into effect until after the standard congressional review period, although Congress rarely intervenes to stop a law.