The nation’s capital just got a step closer to loosening its marijuana laws.
Under the current law, someone caught with a joint in Washington, D.C., can be arrested and jailed for six months. But on Tuesday, the District council voted overwhelmingly for a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for possessing a small amount of the drug.
If Mayor Vincent Gray and Congress both support the bill, as expected, individuals stopped with an ounce or less of marijuana would face a $25 fine at most. People caught smoking in public would still be subject to arrest.
For years, pot advocates have criticized the District's marijuana restrictions for disproportionately targeting its black community, despite evidence (including government surveys) showing that blacks are no more likely than whites to use the drug. According to the Washington Lawyers' Committee, arrest statistics from 2009 through 2011 revealed that 9 out of 10 people arrested for drugs in Washington were black, though blacks make up slightly more than half of the city’s population.
“Black men shouldn’t have to fear being searched just for walking down the street,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a D.C.-based group that supports the bill. “And they shouldn’t face arrest or a heavy fine for doing something that affluent whites get away with every day.”
The marijuana reform movement in the District has followed a long and twisting path. In 1998, nearly 70 percent of Washington voters supported a medical marijuana measure, but Congress, which controls District funding, quickly shut down the program.
Nearly a decade of court battles followed, and Congress finally lifted the ban in 2009. But the District’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened just last year.
Even if the bill passes, the Capitol Police, FBI and DEA could still technically arrest people on marijuana charges under federal law. But the federal government isn’t expected to defy local lawmakers. U.S. Attorney for D.C. Ron Machen said in November that he saw "a lot of problems with trying to decriminalize marijuana possession," but his office hasn't commented on the legislation since.
At the council meeting Tuesday, Democrat Tommy Wells, one of eight council members who introduced the bill last July, noted that marijuana arrests can make it harder for people to get jobs, keep housing and get access to education grants.
Yvette Alexander, a Democrat and the only council member who voted against the bill, said she had "a lot of concerns" about the legislation. "We're sending a message," she said, "that it's okay to smoke."
Assuming the bill makes its way past the mayor’s desk, its next stop would be the Capitol. Congress could effectively prevent the bill from becoming law, but advocates say that’s unlikely.
“This bill still keeps marijuana illegal, and just replaces an arrest and jail time with a fine,” Piper noted. “We don’t expect members of Congress to care that much.”
Council member David Grosso introduced a separate bill at the hearing aimed at expanding Washington's medical marijuana program. The council did not vote on it Tuesday.