Concerns over public pot use threaten support for decriminalization measure

Lingering fear over public pot smoking threatens to derail the District’s marijuana decriminalization bill by keeping intact policies that allow police to stop and search people when they smell the drug, decriminalization advocates say.

Key portions of legislation to decriminalize marijuana use in the District are expected to come under fire Tuesday, when the full D.C. Council is set to consider the measure for the first time.

Lawmakers have floated the possibility of amendments to the legislation, which replaces the criminal penalties in place for marijuana possession or use with civil fines. But some council members want to amend the bill to preserve the criminal sanctions for smoking marijuana in public.

Such an amendment would “gut” the effectiveness of the proposal, said a spokesman for the bill’s chief sponsor, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat.

“Tommy is not going to be on board with any amendment that would strip the bill of effectiveness in actually decriminalizing marijuana,” spokesman Jack Pfeiffer said.

Other amendments in the works would preserve police officers’ ability to search a person or vehicle when the smell of marijuana is detected, with the goal of preventing driving under the influence. But advocates who believe that odor alone should not be cause for police to stop and search a person say such a change would defeat the bill’s purpose.

“If they make changes that remove the language of reasonable articulable suspicion, it will undercut the bill,” said Seema Sadanandan, program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital. “Now you have decriminalized marijuana, but it will only be decriminalized for people who were not getting stopped and searched in the first place.”

Marijuana decriminalization legislation was introduced after the publication of an ACLU report highlighting the disparate rate of arrests of blacks over whites for marijuana possession in the District. The report states that blacks are arrested eight times as often as whites for the offense, even though rates of use among both races are thought to be relatively similar.

The version of the bill up for consideration would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine and confiscation of the drug. Anyone caught smoking marijuana in public could face a $100 fine. Current law makes possession punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

“A vote to weaken any part of this bill is a vote to perpetuate racial disparities and injustice,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Black men shouldn’t have to fear being searched just for walking down the street, and they shouldn’t face arrest or a heavy fine for doing something that affluent whites get away with every day.”

Tuesday’s scheduled vote will be the first of two before adoption of the legislation.

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