Pubdate: Wed, 05 Mar 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Gray to Sign D.C. Bill, Which Would Partially Decriminalize Drug

Possessing marijuana and smoking it in the privacy of one's home 
would no longer be criminal offenses in the nation's capital under a 
bill passed Tuesday by the D.C. Council, putting the District at the 
forefront of a simmering national debate over decriminalization.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) intends to sign the bill, which would 
partially decriminalize pot by imposing civil fines rather than jail 
time for most offenses. The District joins 17 states that have taken 
similar action but doesn't go as far as Colorado or Washington state, 
where voters have legalized the sale and taxation of marijuana.

The District also stopped short of legalizing public smoking - a 
decision influenced by the input of police officials, parents and 
others who remain unconvinced that full decriminalization is a good 
step for the city.

The District's unique rules of governance require the bill to sit 
before a congressional panel for 60 days before it becomes law, but 
several advocates said they don't expect federal lawmakers to 
intervene. More broadly, advocates celebrated the 10 to 1 council 
vote as the latest reflection of growing mainstream support for 
recreational marijuana use. Their cheers were muted only by concerns 
that the council didn't go far enough to reverse the city's history 
of disproportionately arresting African Americans on drug charges. 
"D.C. will serve as a model for jurisdictions where, for one reason 
or another, full taxation and legalization is not yet possible," said 
Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the 
prolegalization Drug Policy Alliance. The landmark vote, he said, 
will leapfrog the District ahead of even California and 
Massachusetts, which have passed more legally complicated 
decriminalization measures in recent years.

By playing out in the nation's capital, the drama highlights the 
persistent conflict that decriminalization creates with federal law. 
It remains unclear how overlapping local and federal jurisdictions 
will affect enforcement, particularly in national parks. Someone 
could be arrested under federal law, for instance, for possession on the Mall.

Elsewhere in the city, the penalty for possession of up to an ounce 
would drop to a fine of $25 - smaller than in any state except 
Alaska. Consumption in private residences would draw the same fine, 
unless in public housing, which is governed by federal law. The bill 
would equate smoking marijuana in public to toting an open can of 
beer; a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $500 and up to six 
months in jail, down from a potential $1,000 fine and one-year jail sentence.

Across the country, decriminalization efforts have been promoted 
primarily as an expansion of civil liberties meant to frame 
recreational pot use as a personal choice with few societal 
consequences and little need for government oversight.

But in the District, the movement has been framed as a civil rights 
issue, particularly in the past year, after a series of reports 
detailed greater racial disparity in drug arrests here than in most 
major U.S. cities.

"In D.C., there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana; 
90 percent are African American," said council member Tommy Wells 
(D-Ward 6), the lead sponsor of the bill. "One drug charge can change 
a life forever. Our action . . . does not repeal all negative impacts 
caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves us in the right 

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who continued to recuperate 
from a recent illness in an inpatient rehabilitation center, did not 
vote. But in a phone interview, Barry praised the outcome. "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.

Once signed, the bill must go to Congress, which will have 60 
legislative days to reject it. That would take an act of both the 
House and the Senate, an outcome that has happened only three times since 1979.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House committee that 
has jurisdiction over many District affairs, declined to comment 
through a spokesman.

But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city's nonvoting member of 
Congress, said she does not expect her colleagues to "interfere." If 
they do, she said, "I will stoutly defend D.C.'s right to pass such 
legislation, just as 17 states have already done."

Implementing and enforcing the measure promises to be an ongoing 
challenge. How the law is interpreted by federal agents in the city 
could depend largely on who is president.

Under President Obama, the Justice Department has not sought a 
confrontation with states that have legalized or decriminalized 
marijuana. But more than two dozen federal law enforcement agencies 
operate in the District, and some routinely make traffic stops and arrests.

Last year, the U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over the Mall 
and nearly every park and traffic circle, recorded 501 "incidents" 
involving marijuana. The agency has not formed a response to the D.C. 
measure, but a Park Police spokeswoman said there is "nothing to 
suggest" it would follow the city's lead.

Not all city leaders view full decriminalization as good for the city 
or, in particular, for its African American population. Council 
President Phil Mendelson (D) led the effort to stop short of allowing 
public smoking, capturing a prevalent sentiment among parents when he 
said he didn't want his daughter sitting next to people getting high in public.

"Society says you can't drink in public. I'm sure the public will 
feel that way in short order with regard to public smoking of 
marijuana," Mendelson said. "It's one thing to talk about treating 
the substance like we do alcohol; another to talk about how we treat 
the behavior."

The lone dissenter Tuesday was council member Yvette M. Alexander 
(D-Ward 7), who said that the half-measure was poorly crafted and 
that the council should either keep it illegal or fully allow it.

"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," 
Alexander said. "If you're the lucky one who happens to possess it, 
then you're off the hook."

D.C. voters could have an opportunity this year to weigh in. A band 
of marijuana activists in the District is awaiting final word from 
the D.C. Board of Elections on whether advocates can proceed with 
gathering signatures for a November ballot measure to authorize full 
legalization of marijuana in the city.

The Elections Board could decide as early as Wednesday on the 
measure, which would allow people 21 or older to possess as much as 
two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to three plants 
at home. It also would allow marijuana growers to transfer, but not 
sell, small amounts to others, as well as legalize the sale of bowls, 
bongs and other cannabis paraphernalia.


Specifics of the bill

Possession: In public or private, possession of up to one ounce would 
be punishable by a $25 fine - down from $1,000 and one year in jail.

Smoking: In public, a misdemeanor, with a $500 fine and six months in 
jail. On your own property: $25 civil fine. Previously, both were 
equal to possession.

Parks: On federal land, stiffer penalties remain.

Driving: All current DUI laws remain.

Public housing: Tenants still face eviction if renter or dependent is 
found in possession.

Enforcement: Police must observe act of smoking in public.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom