On Wednesday, Councilman Tommy Wells introduced legislation to de-criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in D.C. If passed, the drug would still be illegal, but possession would no longer mean a misdemeanor resulting in arrest.
Instead of a criminal offense, the proposed bill would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana merely a civil offense in D.C. – punishable by a $100 fine.
17 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot, including California and New York. The District has already legalized medical marijuana, but the law has not yet been fully implemented.
Marijuana activists are celebrating in the District, as 10 out of 13 members of the D.C. Council have signed on as co-introducers or co-sponsors of the bill.
“Current laws do not work, said Wells. “It takes a tremendous amount of resources from our police, from our prisons, and from our courts -- really with a result that the public good does not outweigh the public harm.”
Supporters of the proposed bill including the NAACP and the ACLU, who argue that in D.C., blacks are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
“When you have an entire population of people who are saddled with criminal records and arrest records, it creates serious barriers to employment,” said Seema Sadanandan, organizer for D.C.’s ACLU.
But the head of D.C.’s police union disputes that officers are to blame.
“This department is only 30 percent white,” said D.C. Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Kristopher Baumann. “We are not targeting people because of their race. We have a drug problem here in DC. We have a poverty problem here in DC. And if the council would start addressing those issues maybe we could fix some of these problems.”
Some opponents worry that decriminalizing marijuana could lead Congress to interfere with District home rule. Others claim this is too slippery of a slope and that it may lead to full legalization of marijuana or other drugs.
D.C. resident Vicky Watkins said: “I think they should just keep the law they already have. Don't minimize it. If you get caught, you should go to jail.”
On Wednesday, Mayor Gray called this decriminalization effort “interesting,” and said he looks forward to reviewing the bill. MPD Chief Cathy Lanier declined to take a specified side in the debate.