WASHINGTON, DC — Lawmakers in our nation’s capital are expected to vote Tuesday on legislation that would eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and treat possession and public consumption as civil offenses. The legislation was approved in January by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
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.
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