By Jordan Scott
The District’s City Council recently voted 10 to1 in favor of passing a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, with Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) as the lone dissenting vote. D.C. follows the lead with 16 other states who have recently taken the legislative steps to decriminalize marijuana.
The bill, initially introduced by Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and co-introduced by Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) in July of 2013, is the first step in the lengthy de-criminalization process. Marijuana possession as it stands is still illegal under the District law, with punishments on possession maxing out at six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The next step is to have the bill signed by Mayor Vincent Gray (D), which he said he plans to do. Then the bill must withstand a 60-day Congressional review where Congress can enact its vetoing powers, if they choose. If the law is approved by Congress then, D.C. will have one of the most lenient decriminalization laws in the country turning a misdemeanor that carries jail time in to a civil violation (a ticket) in the amount of $25, the cheapest fine in the country behind the state of Alaska. House Speaker Senator John Boehner (OH-R) was quoted saying, “I really haven’t seen what the D.C. Council did, but I’m sure we’ll look at it.”
Not to be shown up, D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton went on the record defending her home District saying, “If Members try to interfere, however, I will stoutly defend D.C.’s right to pass such legislation, just as 17 states have already done.”
The council passed the bill on March 4th, reassuring local marijuana enthusiasts who see this as the city progressing in the right direction towards full legalization. Over the last ten years there has been a significant jump in the approval rating in legalizing marijuana with city residents across all regional and racial lines maintaining a 60% or higher approval rate.
The Council’s vote also creates judicial and legislative stress in a city like D.C. mainly due to marijuana still being illegal under Federal law and D.C. being a federal district. With all of the city’s federally owned real estate (e.g. public housing) and federally operated police agencies (e.g. park police), local and national lawmakers alike are weary of the consequences of two systems working closely together, but be in discord in reference to the law.
Groups such as D.C. Cannabis Campaign, who have been very vocal in the fight for full legalization, asked Mayor Vincent Gray to put a moratorium on all marijuana related cases. In a press release the chairman of the group Adam Eidinger said, “Mayor Gray should issue a moratorium on arrests for the possession of marijuana while the legislation in is under Congressional Review. How many more D.C. residents need to be arrested while we wait for Congress?”
The conflict of interest between local lawmakers, police agencies and the federal law, on the issue of marijuana, has only proven detrimental to the city’s black community up to this point. D.C. leads the United States in marijuana arrests per capita, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The report found that the MPD made 836 arrests per 100,000 residents during 2010, while the national average is 256 per 100,000 residents.
Additionally the ACLU found that black residents are more than eight times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges as white residents. The District’s white arrest rate for simple marijuana possession was 185 per 100,000 in 2010, while it was 1,489 per 100,000 for D.C.’s black residents.
Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, whom signed the bill but was unable to vote due to illness said he is happy with the outcome of the legislation. “This is a great day for Washington, for young black men who have been caught up in the criminal justice system for a bag of marijuana,” he said.
Though the future may look bright for many district residents, there are still doubts about the effectiveness and plausibility of decriminalization. The sole dissenting vote, Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), expressed concerns about the gray area the decriminalization presents with law enforcement. She said, “There will not be any reduction in the amount of arrests because . . . there will still be arrests when someone is smoking marijuana on the corner, or when someone is selling marijuana on the corner. If you’re the lucky one who happens to possess it, then you’re off the hook.”
Councilmember Vincent D. Orange (D-At Large) voted neither yay nor nay, voting present on the bill because the bill left off the amendment to bar D.C. employers from drug testing. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) cautioned that city officials should be ready to handle the fallout of addictions that might arise from increased use and to begin a public service campaign, like it does against underage smoking and alcohol to warn children of the possible ills that come from abuse. He said, “This is not saying we’re decriminalizing a harmless substance . . . when abused it is harmful. But we know also the effects and consequences of being arrested, especially if you are a young person, are indeed harmful.”
Advocates say decriminalization is a vital cog needed to get the full legalization machine up and running. City residents will have a say in the matter as marijuana activists await the word from the Board of Elections to solicit signatures to get the issue of legalization on the ballot in this November’s mayoral general election.