WJLA: Marijuana possession would be decriminalized for small amounts under proposal

On Wednesday, Councilman Tommy Wells introduced legislation to de-criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in D.C. If passed, the drug would still be illegal, but possession would no longer mean a misdemeanor resulting in arrest.

Instead of a criminal offense, the proposed bill would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana merely a civil offense in D.C. – punishable by a $100 fine.

17 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot, including California and New York. The District has already legalized medical marijuana, but the law has not yet been fully implemented.

Marijuana activists are celebrating in the District, as 10 out of 13 members of the D.C. Council have signed on as co-introducers or co-sponsors of the bill.

“Current laws do not work, said Wells. “It takes a tremendous amount of resources from our police, from our prisons, and from our courts — really with a result that the public good does not outweigh the public harm.”

Supporters of the proposed bill including the NAACP and the ACLU, who argue that in D.C., blacks are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

“When you have an entire population of people who are saddled with criminal records and arrest records, it creates serious barriers to employment,” said Seema Sadanandan, organizer for D.C.’s ACLU.

But the head of D.C.’s police union disputes that officers are to blame.

“This department is only 30 percent white,” said D.C. Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Kristopher Baumann. “We are not targeting people because of their race. We have a drug problem here in DC. We have a poverty problem here in DC. And if the council would start addressing those issues maybe we could fix some of these problems.”

Some opponents worry that decriminalizing marijuana could lead Congress to interfere with District home rule. Others claim this is too slippery of a slope and that it may lead to full legalization of marijuana or other drugs.

D.C. resident Vicky Watkins said: “I think they should just keep the law they already have. Don’t minimize it. If you get caught, you should go to jail.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Gray called this decriminalization effort “interesting,” and said he looks forward to reviewing the bill. MPD Chief Cathy Lanier declined to take a specified side in the debate.

Source: WJLA

Letter to DC Councilmembers

Dear Councilmember:

The undersigned organizations call upon you to co-sponsor and prioritize passage of legislation that would eliminate all penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana under District of Columbia law. Residents of the District of Columbia are arrested for marijuana possession at greater rates than residents of any U.S. state and almost any U.S. city, and the District spends more per capita on marijuana arrests than any other state in the country.

We are appalled by the waste of taxpayer dollars, law enforcement resources and time expended on marijuana possession arrests in D.C., the onerous collateral consequences that follow an arrest, as well as the stark and unacceptable racial disparities in local marijuana law enforcement. We join many of our fellow D.C. residents in support of legal possession of up to two ounces of marijuana in the District of Columbia.

African Americans comprise just over half the D.C. population, but accounted for more than nine out of every ten marijuana possession arrests in 2010, according to MPD data recently analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The overall marijuana arrest rate in D.C. has grown by more than 60 percent since 2001 and — even more disturbing — the racial disparity in D.C. marijuana arrests has widened by more than 75 percent during that period, from 4.1 to 1 in 2001 to 8.0 to 1 in 2010. Literally tens of thousands of D.C. residents – most of whom are African American or Latino – have been arrested for marijuana possession in the past decade.

The consequences of drug arrests and convictions are severe. In the months and years following a marijuana arrest, individuals with criminal records are denied jobs, rental housing, accreditations, loans and other means to achieve economic self-sufficiency and contribute to the tax base. Unable to pursue many occupational, educational and financial opportunities, people with criminal records are marginalized and left vulnerable to homelessness, untreated physical and mental illnesses, substance dependence, and exposure to HIV and other blood-borne infections. People, including young people, who use marijuana should no longer be criminalized or otherwise be penalized. Where legislation seeks to mandate education for young people about drug use, that information should be based on legitimate scientific and medical evidence.

An April 2013 Public Policy Polling survey found that nearly two-thirds of D.C. voters would support a ballot measure that legalized, taxed and regulated marijuana like alcohol. Nearly two- thirds would support a ballot measure that made possession up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use legal for adults 21 or older. 75 percent of D.C. voters expressed support for removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession. 54 percent expressed support for removing criminal penalties for possession of any drug.

California, Connecticut, Nebraska, Colorado and five other states have repealed criminal penalties for marijuana possession while two states are moving forward with taxation and regulation of marijuana like alcohol. Marijuana policy reform legislation is also pending in Congress and in many states at a time when national polling shows a solid majority of Americans support ending marijuana prohibition. We urge and respectfully request that you prioritize repeal
of all criminal and civil penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia.

American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital
Bread for the City
Drug Policy Alliance
NAACP Washington, DC Branch
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
START at Westminster