The District could stand to benefit financially from decriminalization of marijuana, but activists are divided over whether police would enforce the law more harshly because the city has a financial incentive.
Some marijuana activists say the number of people police stop for having marijuana could increase if the decriminalization bill is passed, since it would take less time to write a ticket than to arrest and book someone.
"The city council bill will raise revenue for the city meaning that more people will be shook down by police. You can't do it halfway," said Adam Eidinger, who is behind an effort to put full marijuana legalization before D.C. voters.
But others say a fine is still a better alternative to jail time and that residents likely will learn to absorb financial penalties.
"We have the speed cameras and incredibly efficient parking enforcement and all the fines and nuisances that come with city life, so we are kind of used to being dinged," said Paul Zukerberg, a lawyer who ran for a seat on the D.C. Council this year on the platform of marijuana law reform. "I don't think police are going to really be encouraged to write tickets just because of this fine."
Under a bill with widespread support in the D.C. Council, a person found in possession of an ounce or less of marijuana would be issued a $100 fine and made to forfeit the drug. Current law makes possession punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
D.C. Council member Anita Bonds said she wouldn't be surprised if the city eventually looked to the fines as a revenue generator.
"We have a very strong reputation in the District of Columbia for knowing how to collect fines, so I don't doubt that it is being considered," the at-large Democrat said.
Sensitive to the issue, council member Tommy Wells said that's why he modeled the bill on legislation from Massachusetts, where the law has already been road-tested.
"That gave me some assurance that it will work for D.C. as well," the Ward 6 Democrat said.
The Massachusetts bill was passed in 2008, and the American Civil Liberties Union says civil fines have not been used to harass people.
"After Massachusetts decriminalized, the state did not see a rise in civil marijuana ticketing by police, as one might expect if financial incentives were driving the enforcement," said Seema Sadanandan, an attorney with the ACLU of the Nation's Capital. "Instead, the problem there has been that police have misconstrued sharing as distribution, and used that as a basis to continue making a significant number of criminal arrests."
With the ACLU lending a hand in drafting the District's bill, Ms. Sadanandan said language was included to avoid the that issue from the outset.
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy L. Lanier has previously said her department has not prioritized marijuana arrests. Through a spokeswoman, she declined last week to comment on her thoughts about legalization of the drug.
An ACLU report that drew attention to the issue this summer concluded that law enforcement officers in the District made a total of 5,393 marijuana-related arrests in 2010.
"If you have 6,000 arrests and the rate stays the same, you are talking about $600,000," Mr. Zukerberg said.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have estimated decriminalization reforms could save officers thousands of hours of work. But the financial benefits reaped from the actual civil fines have been mixed.
The Providence Journal reported in August that after Rhode Island instituted decriminalization reforms, the number of tickets written for pot possession in the first four months were enough to shock a local judge. From April through July, police had issued 851 tickets for marijuana possession and levied more than $110,000 in fines.
"To see this many cases, I am surprised," Traffic Tribunal Chief Magistrate William R. Guglietta told The Journal.
Meanwhile, a Chicago alderman's estimate that the city could collect $7 million a year in marijuana possession fines doesn't seem to be living up to the hype. A January report by the Chicago newspaper the RedEye states that only 380 citations were written from August through December 2012 — netting the city just $98,000 in fines in its first five months.
There isn't much available research on the effects decriminalization has had on states that recently adopted such reforms, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. But citing research out of Australia, he said, "There is definitely some evidence that decriminalization could create a net-widening effect."
Noting the District's strong reputation for ticketing, Mr. Piper said there is still room to question how the policy would work in practice.
"There is definitely some concern but we still think it is a step in the right direction," he said.
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