Drugs

DC Mayor Signs Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Soon, pot possession won't be a criminal offense in the nation's capital.

Photo Credit: Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray Monday signed the marijuana decriminalization bill passed last month by the city council. It's not quite a done deal yet, though -- Congress has 60 working days to object, but to stop the bill, it must pass a resolution blocking it, and President Obama must sign it. So it appears likely that the nation's capital will have decriminalized pot possession by the time Congress leaves town for the August recess.

"DC lawmakers heard loud and clear the public's demand to end marijuana arrests and passed one of the strongest decriminalization laws in the whole country, said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. We don't expect members of Congress to object to saving taxpayer dollars and advancing racial justice here in the nation's capital."

The decriminalization bill, the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409) makes possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of only $25 (the cheapest of any decriminalization state). It also explicitly prohibits police from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for stopping and searching people.

The bill advanced through the DC political process on a wave of concern that marijuana laws in the nation's capital were being enforced in a racially discriminatory fashion and is seen by council members and advocates alike as a model for reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Last July, the American Civil Liberties Union released The War on Marijuana in Black and White, which found that black people in the District are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, and theWashington Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released Racial Disparities in Arrests in the District of Columbia, 2009-2011, which found that blacks accounted for nine out of 10 drug arrests in the District.

Those grim realities were at the forefront as a broad spectrum of DC faith, community, and advocacy groups praised Mayor Gray's signing of the bill.

DC Mayor Vincent Gray has signed the decrim bill. (mayor.dc.us)

"Passage of this law gets to the unspoken imbalances in our justice system for people of color and it is the voice of the people who ensured its passage," said Collective Power, a grassroots alliance of District residents concerned about the disproportionate criminalization and discrimination of communities of color. "The District of Columbia must be at the forefront of decriminalizing 'being black and brown' and this is the start."

"The passing of the decriminalization marijuana bill is the first step in the right direction to dismantling the immoral war on drugs that has devastated communities of color," said Rev. Kelly D. Wilkins with the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ.

"Although I do not advocate or condone the use of marijuana, I support this bill because far too many of our people have been targeted, locked up, thrown away and placed outside of our society due to a small amount of marijuana, said Reverend George C. Gilbert, Jr. with Holy Trinity United Baptist Church.

"This bill is one of the first measures to address racial profiling in drug arrests, both procedurally and substantively. We are confident that Congress shares the District's concerns about disparities in enforcement and the disturbing trends we are seeing nationwide," said Patrice Amandla Sulton with the NAACP DC Branch.

"This historic legislation exists because DC residents and their leaders decided to change an ugly reality: Black people are stopped, searched, and arrested under marijuana prohibition far more than whites, when both groups use the drug at similar rates," said Seema Sadanandan, Program Director at the ACLU of the Nation's Capital.

"I've talked to hundreds of people in the District's black and brown communities who have been stopped and searched because police officers claimed they smelled marijuana, only to find no evidence of the drug whatsoever," Sadanandan continued. "Children on their way home from school, parents on their way to work -- marijuana odor has become the flimsy excuse for treating people of color like criminals. With this decriminalization legislation, we will take a critical step toward ending the racial profiling of entire communities."

If and when the law goes into effect, DC will join 17 states that have already decriminalized small-time marijuana possession. But passage of the decriminalization bill into law is by no means the end to marijuana politics in the District -- in fact, it could be just a first step on a path toward outright legalization, either through the council or through the initiative process.

Before the council right now is a full-blown marijuana legalization bill, Council Bill 20-466, which has been sitting in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee since it was introduced last fall by Councilmember David Grosso.

And waiting in the wings is the DC Cannabis Campaign, whose marijuana legalization initiative has just been approved for signature-gathering.

"I congratulate Mayor Gray for signing this practical reform that should result in fewer people being burdened with a trip to the courthouse for small amounts of marijuana. More people than ever are hopeful the mayor will next support full legalization," said the campaign's chairman, Adam Eidinger.

Given time limitations, Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign can't sit around waiting for the city council to act or for a new mayor to be chosen. They need to start gathering signatures now if they are to try to qualify for the November ballot. They only have until July 7 to come up with 25,000 valid voter signatures, but if they do, the passage of the decriminalization bill may be a significant victory that ends up forgotten in the accelerating rush toward repealing pot prohibition.

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