In a vote today of 10-1, the D.C. Council approved legislation 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. The legislation goes next to District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray who has expressed support for decriminalization. However, the legislation will not become law until Congress has completed a legislative review that may stretch into the summer months and is required under federal law. 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.
"For far too long, people of color have been disproportionately and unfairly arrested and marginalized for marijuana possession in the District of Columbia," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "D.C. Councilmembers took the first critical step today toward ending the selective enforcement of marijuana prohibition policies that have perpetuated racial disparities in the criminal justice system for decades."
The "Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)" is comprehensive legislation that would eliminate 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 advancing this legislation through the Council.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union 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.
"Councilmembers heard the public's demand that marijuana arrests end and have passed model legislation that is one of the strongest marijuana decriminalization laws in the whole country," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "Mayor Vincent Gray should sign and ensure this bill goes to Congress for its review without delay. With every day that passes, more District residents' lives are irrevocably harmed with these senseless marijuana possession arrests."
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.