A District of Columbia mayoral candidate wants the nation’s capital to join a growing number of states that have decriminalized marijuana possession. The trend reflects nationwide concern about over-criminalization and the disproportionate impact of such laws on Blacks and other minorities.
"The effort to decriminalize marijuana is about removing barriers for individuals – the impact on their education, and their opportunities for employment," said Councilman Tommy Wells during a press conference on July 10. "Current legal practices in the District impose a record that sticks with them for life, rather than imposing more sensible civil fines.”
Wells, chairman of the council's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, is the sponsor of proposed legislation –Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013–to remove criminal penalties for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana for individuals 18 years of age and older and replace them with a civil fine of $100, similar to a traffic ticket.
Individuals under the age of 18 would face a civil fine of $100 and would be required to attend a drug and alcohol awareness program.
The bill could have a significant impact on District residents and visitors, said Wells.
"Possession of less than one ounce will no longer be a permanent barrier to individuals seeking employment; those caught with less than one ounce will no longer have their driver's licenses suspended, will not be thrown out of public housing, and will not have their eligibility for public assistance revoked. They will not have their personal property subject to seizure and forfeiture simply because they are caught with less than 1 ounce of marijuana," the mayoral candidate said.
The bill has broad support within the council and among advocates of marijuana decriminalization.
"The District's current policy of arresting and prosecuting thousands of adults for marijuana possession each year is doing far more harm than good," said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement.
"Nobody should face life-altering criminal penalties simply for possessing a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and law enforcement officials' time and attention would be better spent addressing serious crimes.
"It is time to adopt a more sensible marijuana policy in our nation's capital, and that is what Councilman Wells has proposed," Fox added.
According to a report released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union, the District has the country’s highest arrest rate for marijuana possession – it is more than three times the national average – and the highest racial disparity – Blacks are more than eight times more likely to be arrested for possession than Whites.
"The NAACP DC Branch strongly supports the marijuana decriminalization legislation introduced by Councilmember Tommy Wells,” said NAACP D.C. branch President Akosua Tyus in a statement. “In the District, African Americans account for about 91 percent of marijuana arrests, but are currently 51 percent of the resident population. Marijuana related arrests disproportionately target Black communities. The NAACP discourages illegal drug use, but advocates for a public health approach to reduce drug abuse.”
The measure could help law enforcement redirect their efforts in investigating and prosecuting violent crimes, supporters say.
"The very high rate of marijuana arrests in D.C. and their extreme racial disparity can only be addressed by decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital. “As [police] Chief [Cathy] Lanier has said, the police don't make the laws, they only enforce them. The laws therefore need to be changed so the police don't keep enforcing them in a way that ruins thousands of lives every year for no good reason. We look forward to working with Councilmember Wells to make D.C.'s marijuana laws more just."
Four out of five District residents support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to a survey conducted in April by Public Policy Polling. Two-thirds believed that law enforcement resources should be diverted from crimes involving marijuana possession and redirected to more serious crimes.
Nationwide, 17 states have decriminalized marijuana possession. Two of those states, Colorado and Washington, have removed all penalties for adult marijuana possession.