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DC City Council Votes Overwhelmingly to Reform Racist Pot Laws in Nation's Capital

The bill now heads to the desk of Mayor Vincent Gray, who has previously pledged support for such legislation.
 
 
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On Tuesday,  the DC City Council voted 10 to 1 to decriminalize the possession of marijuana in the nation's capital, and the bill now heads to the desk of Mayor Vincent Gray, who has previously pledged support for such legislation.

Possession and sale of medical marijuana is currently legal in DC, but the penalty for possession of recreational pot is up to six months and jail and a $1,000 fine - not to mention a criminal record, which can have damning effects on a person's ability to apply for a job, find housing and build credit. Under the new measure, those found in possession of up to an ounce would be ticketed for $25. 

The vote was motivated in large part by the racist nature of marijuana-related arrests. Across the country, blacks are nearly 4x as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. This disparity is even worse in DC, where blacks are over 8x more likely to be arrested for possession than whites—the largest disparity of any comparable jurisdiction in the country except Iowa. 

Council member Tommy Wells, the lead sponsor of the bill, commented to the Washington Post on the unjust nature of marijuana laws in DC: 

"In D.C., there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana; 90 percent are African American. One drug charge can change a life forever. Our action . . . does not repeal all negative impacts caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves us in the right direction."

The vote in DC is important for the overall thrust of change in drug laws because of how many people DC police arrest for possession. The rate of arrest for simple possession is higher in DC than any other comparable jurisdiction in the country. The District also saw a 62% increase in marijuana possession arrests between 2001 and 2010, behind only four other states. 

The most interesting dimension of the DC vote will be how federal law plays out against the district's right to self-governance. Although the Obama administration has chosen not to directy confront pot legalization in Washington and Colorado, there are more than two dozen federal law enforcement agencies in DC that could easily enforce the dictates of federal law over pot-holding Washingtonians. 

Some doubt that half measures like decriminalization will even do much to stem the rate of arrests for pot. The lone dissenter of the measure, Council member Yvette Alexander, suggested to the Washington Post that the city should either endorse outright legalization or no change at all, since the current measure would do nothing to decriminalize the consumption of pot:

"There will not be any reduction in the amount of arrests because . . . there will still be arrests when someone is smoking marijuana on the corner, or when someone is selling marijuana on the corner,” Alexander said. “If you’re the lucky one who happens to possess it, then you’re off the hook.”

Currently, activists are waiting to hear back from the DC Board of Elections on whether they can begin to gather signatures for a November ballot measure that would fully legalize pot in the nation's capital. 

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_
 
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