Washington D.C. took a major bite out of the failed War on Drugs recently when the city council voted to make marijuana possession an infraction rather than a criminal act. In a city with among the highest arrest rates for marijuana possession, this is a game changing law for police procedures.
“It will have a profound impact on the people of the District of Columbia to decriminalize this marijuana,” said Councilman David Grosso. “I think that should be done expeditiously here in this body and, hopefully, with the support of our mayor.”
City policy makers passed the initiative 10-1, and it now heads to the Mayor’s office where Vincent Gray is expected to sign it into law.
Marijuana policies are changing throughout the nation. This latest effort in D.C. is particularly important as the city is the hub of federal lawmakers and policy makers, those who may have a say in ultimately reducing marijuana from its federal designation as a Schedule I substance.
“This is a big step forward for our nation’s capital, as well as our nation as a whole,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. “Clearly, marijuana prohibition’s days are numbered in the United States.”
In addition, the law change will have a significant impact on racially disparate arrest rates in the city.
Washington D.C. tops the nation in pot possession arrests, averaging around 5,000 each year. Of those, black people are eight times more likely to face arrest than whites—despite the fact that black and white people use marijuana at about the same rates.
“Black men shouldn’t have to fear being searched just for walking down the street,” said Bill Piper, of the Drug Policy Alliance. “And they shouldn’t face arrest or a heavy fine for doing something that affluent whites get away with every day.”
Under decriminalization, marijuana possession will no longer be punishable by jail time. Instead, possession of less than one ounce will be a civil violation and carry a fine of $25, which the Reuters points out is less than the average parking ticket.
Further, and perhaps just as exciting, the newly passed bill restricts officers from searching citizens solely on the basis of smelling marijuana. The scent of marijuana has been used to justify thousands of needless searches on D.C. streets and like NYC’s “stop and frisk” policy, has been doled out disparately among the city’s minorities.
It’s believed the new bill will take effect sometime early in summer 2014, providing the Mayor signs it and it passes the muster of a review process.
While decriminalization isn’t quite as dramatic as full legalization for recreational use, that effort is moving forward. Ballot language for legalization has been approved, and if the DC cannabis campaign can collect 25,ooo signatures from registered voters by July 7th, legalization will go before the voters in DC this November.
It’s long past time for Maryland to catch up, where residents in Baltimore and across the state face misdemeanor charges for marijuana possession.