Washington D.C. Decriminalizes Pot, Congress Might Have Something to Say About It

The U.S. capital joined the popular movement to end marijuana prohibition last week. In a groundbreaking effort, the D.C. Council passed a bill last Tuesday that decriminalizes marijuana, replacing current criminal penalties for the possession of one ounce or less with a $25 civil fine.  Smoking marijuana in public will still be a misdemeanor crime, punishable with a maximum fine of $500 or 60 days in jail.

The legislation passed with a 10-1 vote, and now heads to the desk of Mayor Vincent Gray, who has already expressed support for decriminalization and is expected the sign the bill. However, the legislation will not become law until Congress has completed the next legislative review, as required by federal law, which could extend into the summer months.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio claims to be unfamiliar with the bill, but has verified that Congress will be looking into the matter.  While Congress technically does have the authority to overturn local District of Columbia laws, it hasn’t felt the need arise in more than 20 years.  Some expect that Congress’ reaction to the capital’s dramatic change in drug policy may provide some insight about the federal government’s strategy for handling the popular marijuana legalization phenomenon.

Advocates for the bill are elated by the expected social benefits from decriminalization. “For far too long, people of color have been disproportionately and unfairly arrested and marginalized for marijuana possession in the District of Columbia,” said Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance. “D.C. Council members took the first critical step today toward ending the selective enforcement of marijuana prohibition policies that have perpetuated racial disparities in the criminal justice system for decades.”

Marijuana-related judicial punishments have indeed been shown to disproportionally target African American residents in the District of Colombia.  According to a 2013 survey by the Washington Lawyers Committee, nine out of ten criminals being punished for marijuana-related crimes in the nation’s capital are of African descent.  Other studies have shown that African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, though surveys have shown that marijuana consumption is more or less balanced across racial divides.

Smith, who works as the policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, has said that “Councilmembers heard the public’s demand that marijuana arrests end and have passed model legislation that is one of the strongest marijuana decriminalization laws in the whole country. Mayor Vincent Gray should sign and ensure this bill goes to Congress for its review without delay. With every day that passes, more District residents’ lives are irrevocably harmed with these senseless marijuana possession arrests.”  Dan Rifle, director of federal projects with the MPP, also claimed “This means that, outside of Washington and Colorado, marijuana penalties are now less punitive in our nation’s capital than anywhere else in the country!”

In a poll taken of the city in January, the Washington Post learned that 64% of D.C. residents not only supported decriminalizing marijuana, but also legalizing it for regulation and taxation purposes in a manner similar to Colorado and Washington State.  The D.C. Council members are now considering two additional marijuana reform measures: one which would implement such a system to fully regulate recreational marijuana use among adults, and the other would permanently seal all citizens’ marijuana-related arrest and conviction records.





Photo Credit: Humberto Romeno

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