Pot decriminalization bill advances in D.C. Council

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A D.C. Council committee on Wednesday gave its unanimous approval to legislation that decriminalizes possession of marijuana in the city — making it a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.

The legislation will now advance to the full council for a vote, where passage appears likely as the majority of council members have signaled support of the measure.

The draft bill initially proposed a fine of $100 for possession of marijuana, but the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety recommended lowering the amount to $25 for possession but keeping the fine at $100 for those caught smoking marijuana in public.

Current law makes possession punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

During the committee markup hearing, council member Muriel Bowser asked how police would handle situations like a drug deal in progress under the new law — inquiring if only the seller of the drug would still face a criminal charge. Distribution of marijuana remains illegal under the proposed law and the seller of the drug would still be subject to criminal penalties, said council member Tommy Wells, who heads the committee and sponsored the legislation.

“I want to know if it’s not a crime to possess it, where then are people buying it? How are we going to deal with that?” said Ms. Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat. “Certainly we don’t want to go back to the days when we had open air drug selling in our city. So actually the logic of legalization makes a lot more sense to me than decriminalization.”

Ms. Bowser, who is running for mayor, also noted the disparate penalties that the bill would create between smoking marijuana in the public as opposed to drinking alcohol in public.

“The open container law, as I think you know, is a criminal violation. That is something maybe we should look at and why we criminalize people for an open container,” said Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, who is also running for mayor.

Mr. Wells has cited racial disparities in the arrests made for marijuana possession as the reason for the reform.

The cost of the civil fine was lowered to $25 to “lessen the burden on individuals and families for whom a larger fine could be devastating financially, while still providing a mechanism to discourage marijuana use,” the committee report states.

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