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Congress Blocks Marijuana Decriminalization in D.C., Racist Pot Arrests Rage On

The district’s residents have no voting representatives in Congress, so the power of the vote has been superseded.

Photo Credit: Asier Romero / Shutterstock.com


Representing the interest of local residents, Washington D.C.’s Council voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of America’s most popular illicit drug, cannabis, earlier this year. Under decriminalization, rather than arresting people and charging them with a felony for carrying a little bit of the herb, the punishment would be a fee similar to a parking citation.

Unfortunately D.C. is unlike all other U.S. jurisdictions in that its laws are all reviewed by Congress, and the district’s residents have no voting representatives in Congress. So, the power of the vote has been superseded by federal authorities and our nation’s capital will continue to crowd prisons and jails with nonviolent, primarily black, pot users.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) introduced an amendment to a District of Columbia Appropriations Bill that prohibits D.C.'s government from spending either federal or locally raised funds to carry out any regulation, rule or law that reduces criminal penalties for pot. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved the amendment on June 25. In effect, the amendment negates Washington D.C.’s recently enacted marijuana decriminalization law.

“By any measure, the war on drugs, particularly on marijuana, has been a failure and severely impacted [b]lack communities and communities of color,” said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director at the ACLU of the D.C. in a press release. “Today’s rider passage is a detrimental blow in the D.C. Council’s attempt to enact smarter, fairer laws that address racial disparities and the mass incarceration of communities of color.”

Among its many benefits, the decriminalization law would have freed up the time and money law enforcement agencies spend targeting poor, minority communities for drug possession violations so that they could go after serious crimes. The bill prohibited law enforcement from using the smell of marijuana as an excuse to stop and search people, which would have cut down on the racial profiling that sends poor minorities in the capitol to jail at extremely disproportionate rates.

Law enforcement in D.C. made 5,393 marijuana-related arrests during 2010 alone and 91 percent of those arrested were black according to a 2013 ACLU-NCA study. The study also found that, despite the fact that whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, a black person is eight times more likely to be arrested for pot possession in D.C.

“The District of Columbia wisely decided to use stop wasting its own resources enforcing ineffective and racially biased laws and to allow those with serious illnesses whose doctors recommend it to use medical marijuana,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a press release. ““Marijuana is significantly less harmful than alcohol, and polls clearly show most Americans want to see it treated that way. We’ll do everything we can to restore democracy in D.C. and ensure this regressive amendment is rejected when it is considered by the full House. Mr. Harris’s antiquated, unscientific views on marijuana should be his constituents’ problem, not the District of Columbia’s.”

April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.