Pubdate: Fri, 25 Oct 2013
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2013 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis


For Small Amounts, 10 on Council Back Not Jail Time

D.C. Council members have backed a bill to decriminalize possession 
of small amounts of pot. D.C. lawmakers took more than 15 years to 
allow cancer patients to use marijuana for their pain. But over just 
a few months, city leaders have coalesced around a plan to 
decriminalize small joints, blunts or bowls full of marijuana in the 
nation's capital.

Ten of 13 council members have signed on to a bill to make possession 
of less than an ounce of marijuana punishable by a fine of no more 
than $100. On Wednesday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said for the first 
time that he supports the idea. And on Thursday, the author of the 
bill and the office of the attorney general said they could agree to 
an even smaller, token fine of $25.

That would put the District in the same league as Colorado and 
Washington state, where voters have legalized marijuana. Seventeen 
states also have eliminated jail time for possession in favor of 
civil fines of up to $1,000. If the bill passes, the District would 
rank behind only Alaska, which has no fine, as the most forgiving.

Even advocates of full legalization are surprised by the breakneck 
speed of the legislation in the District, where lawmakers have long 
been reluctant to test Congress on federal drug laws.

Two recent studies that ranked the District among the worst for 
racial disparity in marijuana arrests and the Justice Department's 
growing leniency toward state plans for the medical usage of 
marijuana have given formerly reluctant Democrats cover to support the idea.

The city's coming mayoral election has also turbocharged the debate.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is seeking the Democratic 
nomination, wrote the bill. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), another mayoral 
candidate, has signed on in support. So has David A. Catania (At 
Large), who might run as an independent. And as Gray decides whether 
to seek reelection, he has bowed to the political reality that the 
measure is likely to clear the council in December or January with a 
supermajority that could override a veto.

Wells has cast the effort in lofty terms of lifting up the city's Afri-

marijuana can Americans and has done so comfortably, with Marion 
Barry (D-Ward 8) by his side as co-author.

"Less than one ounce would not be a crime. . . . That would no longer 
mean a drug-arrest record," Wells said Wednesday night to applause at 
a community hearing on the bill in Anacostia.

On Thursday, during a continuation of the hearing in the D.C. 
Council's chamber in the John A. Wilson Building, Wells said: 
"Punishment for drug crimes disproportionately falls on the shoulders 
of blacks and Latinos. . . . We don't want to accuse the police, we 
don't want to accuse anybody . . . but it is a major societal justice 
problem, and we are going to fix it."

The numbers that have shaped the debate so far have come largely from 
a study published in July by

the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs 
and another earlier in the year by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The study by the lawyers' committee found that nine of 10 people 
arrested in the District on charges of simple drug possession are 
black, even as blacks account for less than half the city's population.

The ACLU study also found that the District is arresting more people 
than ever for marijuana possession: It was up 60 percent in the 
decade that ended in 2010, with black residents accounting for much 
of the jump.

Over the summer, the NAACP criticized authorities in the District and 
other cities for using a pretense of smelling marijuana to stop blacks.

The legislation doesn't go as far as some legalization advocates 
would like, and they are awaiting the outcome of Wells's bill to 
decide whether to press ahead with trying to get a nonbinding 
referendum on the ballot in 2014 to fully legalize and regulate 
marijuana sales in the city.

Backers of that idea said Thursday that they might abandon a costly 
referendum if a proposed amendment by Barry makes it into the 
legislation. Barry wants to let the District go the way of Uruguay 
and allow residents to grow a small number of marijuana plants in their homes.

If residents have their own, Barry said, it could "cut out a lot of 
the economics" of illegal street sales of the drug.

"My motivation is very simple. We have hundreds of black men, black 
boys, being locked up for simple possession, given a criminal 
record," Barry said. "In my community, I talk to somebody almost 
every day who says: 'Somebody just got arrested for having a bag of 
weed. Come on, man - What's that all about?' "

Also during the summer, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier urged a 
"robust discussion" of the proposal and cautioned against using the 
ACLU study to justify decriminalization.

"Some of the information being used as an argument for 
decriminalization is flawed," she said in a statement. "Marijuana 
users are simply not being targeted in the manner suggested." Lanier 
did not testify for Gray's administration on Thursday.

That was left to the office of the attorney general, which asked 
Wells to ensure that marijuana possession in school zones is still 
considered a crime. Wells said he agreed with that idea for adults 
but not for children, who under the bill would have their drugs 
confiscated and their parents called.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom