Decriminalization Supported by Most Councilmembers and Has Enormous Public Support; Bill Would Reduce Enormous Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice System Advocates Urge Lawmakers to Pass Bill As-Is and Reject Amendments Weakening the Bill
Washington, D.C. lawmakers are expected to vote Tuesday on legislation approved in January by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that would eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and treat possession and public consumption as civil offenses. Since its introduction in July 2013 by Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the legislation has received overwhelming public support.
The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)” would eliminate the threat of arrest for possessing or using marijuana and ensure that people are no longer saddled with life-long convictions that make it difficult to obtain employment and housing. Instead of arresting people the bill would impose a $25 civil fine for possession and a $100 civil fine for smoking marijuana in public places as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it.
Mayor Vincent Gray and ten out of thirteen Councilmembers also have pledged support for decriminalization legislation. The bill is designed to address massive racial disparities in D.C.’s criminal justice system.
“It’s rare that the Council has such an easy opportunity to improve the lives of tens of thousands of District residents, especially those in communities of color – all while saving taxpayer money,” said Bill Piper, Director of the Office of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “By saving thousands of D.C. residents from getting arrested for marijuana possession every year, this bill promotes both social justice and public safety.”
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released groundbreaking reports documenting enormous racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession in D.C. These reports found that the majority of all drug arrests in the District are for simple possession of marijuana and the vast majority of the thousands arrested each year in the District are African American. African Americans in D.C. are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people – even though government surveys show that both groups use marijuana at similar rates.
During public hearings chaired by Wells last October, witnesses criticized the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws on African Americans in the District and expressed concern that employers and landlords frequently reject applicants for a marijuana arrest or conviction on their record. In response to concerns raised by the Drug Policy Alliance and other witnesses at the hearing that the proposed $100 civil fine would be too burdensome for poor and African-American residents who were disproportionately arrested and would likely be disproportionately fined for marijuana possession, Wells lowered the fine for possession from $100 to $25.
Wells also agreed with advocates that criminalizing people caught smoking marijuana in public places would undermine the purpose of his legislation to end the large number of marijuana possession arrests in the District and disproportionately impact poor and homeless residents who are more likely to be visible to the public. Wells also inserted a new provision that instructs police officers not to use possession of a decriminalized amount of marijuana or the presence of marijuana odor as grounds to search people or their homes.
Social justice advocates, faith leaders and members of the public have urged that this legislation achieve the policy goal of eliminating both the underlying racial disparity in marijuana law enforcement and the harm of a marijuana arrest and subsequent criminal record. Advocates urged that African Americans and residents of neighborhoods saturated with a heavy law enforcement presence do not continue to be unfairly and disproportionately subjected to police scrutiny, invasive searches, and the imposition of fines that most white residents in affluent neighborhoods do not experience. Advocates urge that these policy goals are essential to changing and improving the relationship between the community and law enforcement.
A poll conducted in April 2013 by Public Policy Polling, and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project, found three out of four D.C. voters support changing District law to replace criminal penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana with a civil fine similar to a traffic ticket. A poll conducted in January by the Washington Post found that 63 percent of D.C. residents in support of taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol. Recent national surveys by Gallup, Pew Research Center, CNN/ORC, CBS News and other outlets found a majority of Americans support making marijuana legal.
During a legislative meeting last month, several Councilmembers expressed concerns about the legislation and indicated that they may offer amendments that advocates warn could weaken the effectiveness of the legislation to end the mass arrests of people for the possession of a small amount of marijuana. Advocates urge D.C. Councilmembers to advance the legislation passed by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on January 15.
“A vote to weaken any part of this bill is a vote to perpetuate racial disparities and injustice,” said Piper. “Time and again, D.C. residents have made it loud and clear that they want to end the criminalization of people who use marijuana and restore fairness to the criminal justice system. Black men shouldn’t have to fear being searched just for walking down the street, and they shouldn’t face arrest or a heavy fine for doing something that affluent whites get away with every day.”
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