DC Decriminalizes Marijuana Despite Congress' Attempts to Block the New Law

When the clock struck midnight on Thursday morning, Washington D.C. joined 17 U.S. states in decriminalizing cannabis. In response to the needlessly harsh penalties and consistently racist enforcement of criminalization, the District of Columbia Council voted on this common sense measure, 10-1, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray signed it into law in March. Thursday marks the end of a 60-day Congressional review period, at which point the law goes into effect. Marijuana possession will now be treated more like a parking infraction than a criminal act within the nation’s capital.


The change is a dramatic one for Washington. Previously, simple cannabis possession could be life-altering: the punishment ranged up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 charge. Now, possession of up to an ounce will carry no criminal charge, and will result in a $25 ticket (or a warning). Public use of cannabis can still be treated as a crime, with harsh penalties attached.  Federal officers, such as the Capitol Police or U.S. Park Police, can still arrest people for marijuana possession under federal law (as opposed to city law)—a detail that exposes the growing rift between federal and local policies on cannabis. However, city police officers carry out the vast majority of marijuana arrests (now marijuana ticketings) in D.C.

The new law is great progress in mitigating the damage done by criminalization. An ACLU study found that African Americans in Washington D.C. were eight times as likely to be arrested as whites, despite comparable usage rates. The same study found that the city spent over $26.5 million annually on enforcing marijuana laws. That’s quite a cost to enforce a policy that profits gangs, has not been shown to reduce drug use or potency, keeps a medicinal plant away from people who could benefit from it, and that, unlike alcohol, has never directly killed someone in recorded history. While Washington’s cannabis laws are still far from perfect, they are vastly improved as a result of this measure going into effect.

Due to D.C.’s unique status as a city overseen directly by the federal government, the law could still be meddled with by the U.S. Congress. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) attempted to do exactly that in June, when he successfully added an amendment to a D.C. appropriations bill, which prevents the reduction of any criminal penalties associated with marijuana within the District. However, this provision has not yet become law, and due to a number of political hurdles in its path, it may never do so. The tortured logic of criminalization that serves to protect entrenched industries more than advance good policy is still the status quo in too much of the U.S. Congress, which is woefully behind the American public on this issue.

Washington D.C.’s move to decriminalization will mean that millions of dollars in law enforcement and incarceration can be diverted toward more useful, humane causes. People who would have had their careers derailed by a felony charge for pot will avoid that pointless, but deeply harmful pitfall. While the federal government remains behind the times, the city that houses it is moving forward.

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