The D.C. Council approved Bill 20-409 (The Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013) Tuesday that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District. The measure, which is sponsored by Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells and supported by eight of the council's 13 members, is expected to receive final approval at the council's next legislative session.
The measure would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for individuals 18 years of age and older and replace them with a civil fine of $25, similar to a parking ticket. Individuals under the age of 18 who commit a violation would also have their parents notified. The bill also removes penalties for possession of paraphernalia in conjunction with small amounts and specifies that individuals cannot be searched or detained based solely on an officer’s suspicion of marijuana possession. Currently, possession of any amount of marijuana is a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
The council adopted several amendments that weakened the scope of the bill, including one that would continue to criminalize public use, making the smoking of marijuana in public a misdemeanor that could lead to arrest and jail time, as opposed to a civil violation. An amendment was also passed that would make the odor of marijuana reasonable cause to perform a search of a vehicle.
At-large Council member David Grosso has introduced separate legislation that would tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.
[caption id="attachment_7039" align="alignright" width="300"] Mayor Vincent Gray[/caption]
On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray stated that he supports decriminalizing marijuana, or removing criminal penalties associated with possession of under one ounce. Currently, those caught with less than one ounce of marijuana in D.C. can be sent to jail for up to six months and fined up to $1,000, and evidence suggests that the laws have had harsh consequences for D.C. residents. According to a study published in June by the ACLU, black residents in D.C. are eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white neighbors.
Mayor Gray’s announcement gives more weight to a proposal made by Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that seeks to remove the harsh criminal penalties associated with marijuana possession and replace them with a civil fine of $100. The proposed bill has the support of a supermajority on the council, and two hearings have been scheduled this week to discuss the measure further.
“I don’t have a position on whether to legalize it or not, but we should have that discussion,” Gray told News Channel 8.
He said that the topic is an important one because current prohibitionist policies result in harmless young people getting criminal records.
The mayor’s statement comes after growing call for reform in the District. On July 10, D.C. Councilmember and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells proposed legislation to remove criminal penalties for the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
Washington, D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D – Ward 6) proposed a bill today that would decriminalize marijuana in the nation’s capital. Possession of up to an ounce would be punishable by a civil fine of $100 rather than by the current threat of jail time. The bill was also backed by Marion Barry (D – Ward 8).
Wells told reporters that decriminalization would save youths who are caught with small amounts of marijuana from becoming entangled in the criminal justice system and losing out on future employment opportunities.
The bill has arrived at an interesting time for marijuana reform advocates. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report which found that D.C. leads the nation in marijuana possession arrests per capita. The study also found that arrests in the District were racially biased: African Americans were eight times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges. According to D.C. police statistics, there were roughly 4,300 marijuana possession arrests in 2011.
Surveys indicate that a majority of D.C. residents agree with Wells’ proposal. An April poll by Public Policy Polling found that 75% of D.C. residents support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Additionally, 63% support taxing and regulating marijuana for adults.
MPP spokesman Morgan Fox was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, “It is time to adopt a more sensible marijuana policy in our nation’s capital, and that is what Councilman Wells has proposed.”