Marijuana Decriminalization Hits the Nation's Capital

Yesterday, D.C. Councilmembers Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) introduced before the Council of the District of Columbia legislation that would eliminate criminal penalties under District law for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. A majority of the D.C.Council -- five Democrats and one Independent -- co-signed onto the bill, boosting the chances of reform winning the Fall vote. 

The legislation would subject a person in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana to a $100 civil fine. Juveniles additionally would have to complete a drug awareness program under the proposal. Failure by a juvenile to complete a drug awareness program within a year would result in the provision of a $200 fine and court-ordered community service. 

“Lets get this done and stop arresting, mostly black men, for small amounts of marijuana,” Barry said.

Introduction of this legislation follows the release last month of a groundbreaking report by the American Civil Liberties Union that documented enormous racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession in D.C. The report also found that District of Columbia residents are arrested for marijuana possession at greater rates than residents of any U.S. state, and that D.C. taxpayers spend more per capita on marijuana arrests than any U.S. state. Late last month, a letter signed by the Drug Policy Alliance and other community stakeholders called on Councilmembers to end marijuana arrests in D.C. by eliminating all criminal and civil penalties for the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.

"The introduction of this legislation by Councilmember Tommy Wells is a positive step toward putting an end to marijuana possession arrests that cause irreversible harm to people's lives, disproportionately impact communities of color, and waste public resources," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "While this legislation is an important step in the right direction, Councilmembers should consider following in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington by legally regulating marijuana," said Smith. According to the Washington Post, one of the bill's co-sponsors, Independent Councilmember Ian Grosso, plans to introduce a bill to legalize, tax, and regulate this Fall. 

A recent poll conducted 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. Furthermore, more than 60% of D.C. voters in the survey would support a ballot measure similar to those approved by voters in Colorado and Washington in November, which made marijuana legal for adults and directed state officials to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol. Additionally, a solid majority (54%) said that all drug use should be treated as a public health issue and that people should no longer be arrested and locked up for possession of a small amount of any drug for personal use.

"As Councilmembers look to end marijuana possession arrests, they should also consider the broad human and fiscal toll that decades of failed drug prohibition has wrought on District residents," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "Ultimately, drug use is most effectively addressed as a health issue instead of as a criminal justice issue -- and this means that possession of any drug in D.C. should not be criminalized," said Smith.

A national survey released by the Pew Research Center on April 4 found that, for the first time in its 40 years of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans (52%) support making marijuana legal. Similar national surveys conducted by Gallup and other polling firms have also found majority support for ending marijuana prohibition.


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