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Amid Disproportionate Arrests of Blacks for Marijuana Possession, Washington D.C. Introduces Bill to Decriminalize Possession

A picture of the Capitol in the evening in Washington D.C., where many more blacks are arrested for pot possession, yet it may soon be that cannabis is decriminalized in our nation's capitol.
Photo by Tracy Cooley


Amid Disproportionate Arrests of Blacks for Marijuana Possession, Washington D.C. Introduces Bill to Decriminalize Possession

Washington D.C.’s  Council Judiciary and Public Safety Committee has been making strides to pass a bill in the district, B20-409, which will decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The bill is expected to pass in the coming weeks.

A separate ballot measure has been filed and is currently collecting signatures for the November ballot that would fully legalize marijuana in the district.

According to Grant Smith, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington D.C., the committee passed the bill Jan. 5 and it will now move on to a second vote. A finalized bill would need to be signed by the mayor before taking effect, but could happen as early as March 2014.

Nearly half of Washington D.C.’s 632,000 residents are black, but the majority of marijuana related arrests in the district are of African Americans. If the proposed legislation is passed, that statistic could drop dramatically. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that, in 2010, 91 percent of marijuana arrests were of African Americans.

“We have hundreds of young black men, black boys, being locked up, for simple possession of a couple bags of marijuana,” says Marion Barry a Democratic councilmember. “We don’t want to be proud of the wrong kind of thing here. We need to stop that kind of injustice from happening.”

The nation’s capital is taking leaps towards legalizing the possession of marijuana. Tommy Wells (D), a councilmember and candidate for mayor in the district, brought forth a piece of legislation to remove the current penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

Instead of punishing offenders with fines of up to $1,000 alongside a six-month jail sentence, the new fee for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would be a scant $25. Also, offenders would not face jail time if the amendment is passed.

Passing B20-409 would relinquish the local authority’s right to search individuals simply for the presence a cannabis aroma.

If passed, D.C. would become the second most lenient state toward marijuana possession behind Alaska with a zero dollar fine, and also Colorado and Washington, which have already fully legalized marijuana.

An amendment like B20-409 is fast on the heels of the district’s medical marijuana law, medical marijuana dispensaries were introduced in 2013. The strict regulations on the district’s three medical marijuana dispensaries resulted in only 59 people signing up for medical cannabis.

The Council Judiciary and Public Safety Committee met on Jan. 15 and advanced Wells’ B20-409. Although 10 of the 13 council members have shown their support for the act, it has not officially become law. Supporters of this swift change in the district’s strict drug policy have since come forth. A range of committees including the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), are backing the new amendment.

B20-409 is also gaining support amongst the city’s white population under 40. Will Hardy, a D.C. resident said, “I smoke pot, and I’m a high functioning critical thinker… The prohibition on pot has been lost in terms of its social goal — to calm a social problem. It’s creating a social problem, not calming it.”

B20-409 would lower fines for possession on the district’s land; however, the new amendment would not cover those caught on federal land. Twenty percent of the city’s land is federal and if caught the U.S. Park Police could still make an arrest and issue fines for possession of cannabis.

By Dom Ellis

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