One of the most expansive marijuana decriminalization bills went into effect in Thursday in Washington, D.C. Starting July 17, individuals found in possession of small quantities of marijuana will not be arrested, but issued the lowest fine of any U.S. state that has a similar law — $25. The law also aims to prevent officers from policing around decriminalization by mandating that the scent of marijuana is not sufficient “reasonable suspicion” to justify a police stop, search, or other invasion of a suspect. And those found to be in possession of small amounts of pot cannot be barred from other government services, such as public assistance or use of their driver’s license.
The law is a major victory for racial justice advocates (protestations of a few out-of-touch members of Congress notwithstanding). One of the primary drivers of the D.C. law was an expansive study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found marijuana laws are enforced in deeply discriminatory ways. Although whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates, African Americans were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana nationwide in 2010. In Washington, D.C. that disparity, is twice as stark — African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested.
This finding resulted in a law that will curb these disparate arrests in one area of the law. But don’t mistake marijuana reform for a panacea.
It is dangerous for young people to be thrown against the pavement and searched. It is dangerous to have a parent who can’t get a job because they have a drug conviction.
Even if Washington, D.C. goes farther than this law and legalizes marijuana — as advocates are aiming to do — that won’t solve the root problem the ACLU of the National Capital Area sought to address when it looked at marijuana: aggressive, disproportionate policing against blacks in Washington, D.C.
“For the ACLU we support tax and regulate without question,” said Seema Sadanandan, program director for the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital. “But the more important question here in the district is the way police practices are functioning in the District.”
Sadanandan said the ACLU heard report after report from young people that claims of suspected marijuana is how police made first contact with them, so they investigated marijuana because it seemed to be one of the primary “tools in the arsenal that’s being used to stop black people.” But it’s far from the only tool. In stopping cars, for example, officers sometimes employ a policy of stopping cars with something hanging in the rearview mirror. Because this is so commonplace and divorced from criminal activity, police could use that to stop the people they deem suspicious.
“As one officer said to me, there are many different ways they can initiate contact,” Sadanandan said. “We need to change the whole culture, structure.”
A Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report released just a month after the ACLU’s report tells the larger story. While the District is about 47.6 percent black, more than eight out of ten arrests in the District were of African Americans between 2009 and 2011, and nine out of ten arrests for drug offenses were of African Americans. The vast majority of these arrests — 19 out of 20 — are for non-violent offenses, and most of these arrests never lead to a conviction.
The District of Columbia doesn’t even keep track of “stops” or encounters if they never lead to arrest, Sadanandan said.
And unlike in New York City, those stops associated with the notorious “stop-and-frisk” can take a very different form in the District of Columbia, in what the ACLU has termed a “jump-out.” Officers patrol in groups of six or so in an unmarked vehicle. When they see someone that looks suspicious, they jump out of the car and descend onto the person, sometimes with guns raised. Other times grabbing the suspects, or using their vehicle to block the suspect’s path.
“These are extremely aggressive encounters,” Sadanandan said. “They’re designed to use the element of surprise to disarm the person. It’s so coercive that they don’t feel like they really have a choice,” even though an individual has the right to decline a search unless an officer gets probable cause for a search during the stop.
Even the marijuana decriminalization law can be exploited by police who are not committed to executing the spirit of the 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.
In response to criticisms like those of Sadanandan, police have said that individuals in many of these predominately African American communities seek out heavy police protection so they can feel safe. They also point out that many of these officers are also black.
And Sadanandan doesn’t disagree with those facts. But institutional policies and culture play a huge roll in these outcomes, she says, and no one is trying to play “good cop, bad cop.” It’s also “dangerous for young people to be thrown against the pavement and searched. it is dangerous to have a parent who can’t get a job because they have a drug conviction.” The Metropolitan Police Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I think part of what we did with our report was validate the experiences of people here in the District, and say look, this really is happening to you. You’re not crazy,” she said. Those people are also telling her they want broader reform.