The District is quietly preparing for a law to take effect Thursday that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, with the Metropolitan Police Department issuing a special order to officers advising them of new protocols.
Under the new law, possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana will no longer be a criminal offense and instead be punishable by a civil fine of $25. Criminal penalties remain in effect for those caught smoking pot in public or those caught with the drug on federal property.
Preparing for the change in local drug laws, the police department has advised officers to review an 8-page special order detailing the new law and to complete an online training program.
“As of midnight, Wednesday night, no member can make or approve an arrest for marijuana possession without having first taken this training,” said MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump.
Responsibilities of prosecutors, who will handle the drug-related charges that remain criminal offenses, will be divided among two agencies.
The Office of the Attorney General will prosecute cases in which individuals are charged with smoking marijuana in public, while the U.S. Attorney’s Office will handle cases in which an individual is caught with more than 1 ounce of pot or is caught in possession of the drug on federal land, said Bill Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District.
The federal government handles law enforcement on large swaths of land in the District, such as Rock Creek Park and the Mall, so federal criminal penalties will remain in effect for those caught in possession of marijuana on such properties.
“We rely heavily on diversion programs in our local marijuana prosecutions and will likely do the same with respect to federal offenses,” Mr. Miller said.
When deciding how to proceed with cases after decriminalization takes effect, Mr. Miller said prosecutors will “assess each case on an individualized basis” and “use our limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats to public safety.”
The D.C. Council passed the marijuana decriminalization bill in March, but drug cases have continued to move through the District’s criminal justice system in the interim, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office continuing its “usual practice,” Mr. Miller said.
One defense attorney concurred that there has been no letup in the meantime.
“They are prosecuting it, as far as I can see, up until the very last minute,” said Paul Zukerberg, a lawyer running for District attorney general who has advocated for marijuana law reform and often represents clients facing drug charges.
The exact moment that enforcement will change is a bit unclear. Estimating when D.C. legislation becomes law is something of an inexact science. Legislation passed by the council and signed by the mayor has to go through a congressional review period — in this case covering 60 days that both the House and Senate are in session.
City officials project the legislation will become law on Thursday, as long as Congress doesn’t take any unexpected breaks Wednesday. On Capitol Hill, estimates are more precise. Will Boyington, a spokesman for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the law becomes official at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
And although officers will begin enforcing new laws at some point this week, the future of the city’s drug policy reform remains uncertain.
An amendment that would block the city from lessening its drug penalties was last month attached to a House spending bill that includes the D.C. budget.
The amendment, offered by Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, would have to make it into a final draft of the bill once it is reconciled with a Senate version. Observers say the amendment is unlikely to be included, particularly after the White House weighed in on the issue Monday, saying that it “strongly opposes” the provision.
Whether the Harris amendment changes D.C. drug laws again down the road, police for now are gearing up to educate residents about the reality of decriminalization.
MPD is printing business card-size information sheets to hand out to residents that explain the new drug law.
The front of the card begins: “You may have heard that marijuana is now legal in the District of Columbia. That is not true.” The backside of the card lists potential health risks of using marijuana.
On Thursday, a new MPD website, featuring information about the law, www.mpdc.dc.gov/marijuana, will also go live.