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D.C. Council approves bill decriminalizing marijuana

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Smoking marijuana in the home or possessing small amounts of the drug will no longer be a crime in the nation’s capital under a bill passed Tuesday by the D.C. Council and expected to be signed into law by the mayor.

The legislation, adopted on a 10-1 vote, makes possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of $25 while preserving criminal penalties for smoking pot in public.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill could attempt to roll back the measure, which stands at odds with federal statutes. It faces a congressional review period, but activists said Tuesday that they had not heard of any impending threats to the bill among federal lawmakers.

Marijuana decriminalization legislation was introduced after the publication of an American Civil Liberties Union report highlighting the disparate rates of arrests of blacks over whites for marijuana possession in the District. The report last year stated that blacks were arrested eight times as often as whites for the offense, even though rates of use among both races were thought to be similar.

“Today we are taking a significant step to correct a continuing social injustice caused by a failed war on drugs,” said the bill’s sponsor, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who noted that more than 5,000 people annually are arrested in the District for marijuana-related offenses.

The District joins 17 states with some form of decriminalization on the books. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have fully legalized the sale and recreational use of marijuana.

Though decriminalization statutes vary widely, most states do not draw a distinction between possession and public use of marijuana as the District’s bill does.

An initial version of the D.C. legislation would have decriminalized public smoking of marijuana, but council members amended the legislation at the request of Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who were worried that it would lead to widespread public use. But the bill reduces the criminal penalties for smoking marijuana — up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine — to a maximum punishment of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Despite his bill winning passage, Mr. Wells continued to express concern that in its adopted form the measure will allow racial disparities to persist among those arrested for smoking pot.

“One drug charge can change a life forever,” said Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat. “Our action today does not repeal all negative impacts caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves us in the right direction.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, the bill was also amended to give authority of any criminal marijuana prosecutions to the District’s attorney general, a locally appointed position that handles misdemeanors and less-serious offenses, rather than sending the cases to the federally appointed U.S. attorney.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, was the only vote against the decriminalization measure. She said it could compromise the city’s burgeoning medical marijuana program and created disparities in punishment for use in private homes versus public housing.

Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to prevent employers from testing for marijuana during the hiring process. He said decriminalization sends a mixed message to teenagers who might use the drug because it is no longer criminal but be disqualified from jobs because of use of marijuana.

“Now they’re going to think, ‘I can smoke because the government is saying it’s not a criminal offense and I’m going to go try this,’ and then they’re going to be penalized when they walk in there trying to get a job,” said Mr. Orange, who abstained from the final vote.

Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, was not present for the session but was a co-sponsor of the bill.

After the measure’s passage, marijuana proponents issued a statement asking for the mayor to issue a moratorium on all possession arrests while the measure undergoes congressional review — a process standard for all D.C. legislation. A spokesman for Mr. Gray said he would have to review the proposal before commenting.

While the review period for most D.C. bills takes 30 legislative days, the marijuana bill will undergo a 60-day review because it changes the city’s criminal code. During that time, federal lawmakers could file a disapproval resolution that both chambers of Congress and the president would have to approve in order to block the measure.

James Jones, a spokesman for D.C. Vote, said he has heard of no intent by lawmakers to block the bill.

In a statement issued Tuesday after the vote, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, said she expected no challenge to the measure but would defend the District’s right to pass such legislation.

“In a country where many states are permitting medical marijuana, or have decriminalized or legalized marijuana, I do not expect Members of Congress to interfere with D.C.’s local right to pass its own law on marijuana decriminalization,” Ms. Norton said.

Other efforts are working toward outright legalization of the drug in the city.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, at-large independent, has introduced legislation that would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana, and activists are working to get an initiative before D.C. voters that would allow for home cultivation.

While activists plan to pursue those broader initiatives, they praised the steps the D.C. Council took Tuesday.

“Council members 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,” said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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