DC Council Passes Bill to Decriminalize Marijuana

Photo by PoPville flickr user Joe in DC

From a press release:

“Legislation to decriminalize marijuana, introduced and stewarded by Councilmember Tommy Wells, passed a final vote in the District Council, ten to one.

“This is a victory for social justice and a major step for the nation’s capital,” said Councilmember Wells. “This bill is a tremendous stride to end the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests that keep our residents from jobs, higher education and housing opportunities. The evidence of racial disparities in arrests and the failures of the war on drugs are undeniable and the negative socioeconomic impacts on African American residents are indisputable.”

According to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the District of Columbia leads the United States in marijuana arrests. DC police made 846 such arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010. Nationally that number was 256 per 100,000.

According to another recent report, written by the Washington Lawyers Committee, 91% of all drug arrests in DC were of African Americans. In 2010 there were 40,353 arrests of African American adults; a number equivalent to 17% of the African American adult population of the District.

A copy of the bill is available here.

What the bill does:

· Drops the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense, which carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, down to a civil offense with a fine of $25.
· Establishes a maximum penalty for smoking marijuana in public of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Previously the penalty for smoking marijuana in public carried up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
· Protects individuals from being subject to detainment, frisking, searching, and arrest based solely on the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana or based on the smell of marijuana alone.
· The production, sale, and possession of over an ounce remain criminal offenses.
· The bill does not change existing laws related to driving under the influence.”

And from Rep. Norton:

“Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) made the following statement on the District of Columbia Council’s passage today of a marijuana decriminalization bill.

“In a country where many states are permitting medical marijuana, or have decriminalized or legalized marijuana, I do not expect Members of Congress to interfere with D.C.’s local right to pass its own law on marijuana decriminalization. If Members try to interfere, however, I will stoutly defend D.C.’s right to pass such legislation, just as 17 states have already done.”

81 Comment

  • holy shit glad this is getting revised – “up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine” for smoking in public?!

    • I would have opted for keeping this fine the way it was. I mostly don’t mind people smoking at home (it only gets bad when it wafts down the hall and into every apartment on the floor), but am absolutely against people lighting it up in the park or walking down the street.

      • Does it represent some sort of moral degeneracy to see someone smoking a joint in the park? You better never let your kids see you drinking a beer or a glass of wine, imagine the impact on their fragile psyche!

        • “Does it represent some sort of moral degeneracy to see someone smoking a joint in the park?”
          It indicates a blatant disregard and disrespect for the law, and by extension, other citizens. That may not qualify as moral degeneracy to you, but it does pretty much proclaim that you only consider yourself and your desires when making decisions. It is still illegal to smoke a joint in the park, regardless of whether it “should” be.

  • Dave’s not here, man!

  • Will civil offences appear on one’s record?

  • Awesome. Can’t wait until it’s finally legalized.
    The interesting court battles will come when Federal employees who have a medical license to smoke, yet are somehow disciplined by their Federal employer for failing a drug test. It’s gonna get messy.

    • gotryit

      No, I think that’s pretty clear right now. It may not be a criminal offense in DC, but it’s still against federal law. I certainly won’t be messing around with the legality of that one. Beer / wine thank you very much.
      I think the more interesting cases will be federal law enforcement that operates inside DC, like Park Police. Do they enforce the federal law? Or defer to DC laws?

  • to bad i’m a contractor bound by fed laws….ARRRRGhgghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!

  • How do you “decriminalize” marijuana but still allow for jail time for smoking in public? Seems like that should be a civil penalty and a fine as well. You could carry around an ounce and get a $25 fine, but light up that joint and boom, 60 days in jail.

    • Same way you can get arrested for drinking in public but not in your house or for carrying your booze home with you.

    • same way you can walk down the street with a six pack, but you can’t open one up and drink it as you walk in public.

    • epric002

      b/c they’re really decriminalizing possession.

    • They are treating it like alcohol. You can carry a six pack and get no fine, but open that beer and you’re “guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500, or imprisoned for not more than 90 days, or both.”

  • Regarding Congress’ role, assuming Mayor Gray signs, it seems to me Congress would have to pass a law affirmatively rejecting this decriminalization act within 60 days on Congress’ legislative calendar (however long that is). If you support this, then that sounds a lot better than Congress having to affirmatively approve. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’m looking at Section 602(c)(2) of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act here: http://www.abfa.com/ogc/hract.htm#602

    • jdd – You’re right, but I can’t imagine that the congress would rally against this particular bill, out of everything else they have [not actually] going on at the moment. The budget? Naw…. let’s be a gadfly to the lowly folks in DC. Just don’t really see that happening.

      • anonymouse_dianne

        Are you forgetting when Congress forbid DC to count the votes on decriminalizing mj? Not so long ago. Boehner seems to be ramping up for a fight.

        • Boehner’s always ramping up for something. I’m willing to bet that it will pass Congress (well, rather that Congress won’t convene to overturn it).

  • I don’t get the whole “African American” thing and how it relates (other than to pander to votes). I mean it is not as if police are blatantly walking by white people on street corners blazing up, and it is not like police are falsifying police reports or stashing pot on black people. How about everybody (lets go for equality here) just know the law and try to follow it. Don’t blaze, no problems. How is your choice to smoke pot in a public location my problem that you can’t get a job? Personally I would not fight against the legalization of pot, but why is race being brought into it?

    • Because years and years of continued social injustice … seriously?

    • Unequal application of the existing law. There is definitely historical precedence for this.
      Though yes, I do agree with you that the politicians are pandering for votes. But that’s what any good politician would do. Can you really fault them for that?

    • It is just pandering. I am pro legalization but to me the social justice argument rings a little hollow. If the offense was for cocaine or something more serious would we have the same policy? There is an easy solution to not getting arrested for marijuana possession – don’t possess marijuana. Blaming the law for someone’s inability to conform to it seems a bit antithetical to me. There are tons of laws that I think are stupid and would love to break but I don’t because of the consequences.

      • The reason people are making the social justice argument is that in DC white people get arrested for marijunana possession at a rate of 185 per 100,000, while black people get arrested at a rate of 1,489 per 100,000.

        • Oops, meant to add that blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate. It’s just the arrest rate that has the huge disparity.

          • That’s an interesting assertion. Evidence?

          • I got my info from the ACLU’s report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White”. They got the usage figures from the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration report “Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings”, and the arrest figures from a FOIA request with the Research and Analysis Branch of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

          • Thank you. Very interesting. A graph from that report shows that Asians (3.5%) are far less likely to use marijuana compared with their white (9.1) and AA (10.7) peers. Interesting data. Will be exploring it further.

          • How often do you walk by a group of white guys on the corner smoking weed out in the open vs. black guys? Use is probably similar but putting it in the face of law enforcement is disproportionate

        • I get that but isn’t that just one piece of the puzzle. What are the reasons for the disproportionate treatment? It seems to me that just equating disproportionate with unjust is missing a whole bunch of steps in between. I would imagine that if you add a socioeconomic component to it those numbers would be a lot closer to equal.

        • They get arrested more often because they are doing it in public, while white people are doing it in private. It’s not about race, it’s about what the cops actually see. It blows my mind how often I walk by black guys openly smoking pot in public. Walking home last night I could smell the pot smoke from almost a block away from a group of black guys smoking. It doesn’t take a genius cop to figure out what’s going on.

      • very well said. just another excuse for poor behavior. ive got some stuff on my “rap sheet” but would never seek to blame it on anything but my own stupidity and, as you say, inability to conform to the law. this type of thinking reinforces the flawed thinking that the short and long term consequences of breaking the law are someboy else’s fault

  • I have no problem with marijuna, but I hope the people who choose to smoke it, do so in a responsible manner. With hat if my neighbor is smoking on their porch and stinking up my house/yard? Booze doesn’t smell. I also hope this doesn’t empower the drug dealers. There are enough running around in this city!

    • Legalizing it entirely would completely disempower drug dealers in terms of weed. It seems to me that pot should absolutely be legalized, then taxed like crazy.

      • clevelanddave

        How would it do that? Marijuana will still cost 100-300 an ounce. Indeed because it will be used more widely by more people often outside the bounds of the “new” law it may increase arrests rather than reduce them.

        • They call it “weed” for a reason. It’s not like it’s hard to grow. So as the relaxing of laws continues its way up the chain to the growers, you’ll see a huge boom in supply. You’ll be able to buy the cheap commercial stuff from any licensed seller, and you’ll be able to take a day trip out to Virginia to buy the designer commercial stuff from an organic grower.
          And I agree with anonymous, once production is established and regulated, we should tax the hell out of it.

    • I agree – but what about cigarettes and cigars? Same issue.

    • so if someone is grilling food and I find the smell offensive does that give me a right to complain?

  • I don’t think this is a good idea at all in terms of crime reduction. How many times have you read about marijuana being the pretext for a stop and frisk that led to recovery of a firearm? It happens all the time. This will dramatically reduce the ability of law enforcement to get violent offenders off the street.

    Say what you want about marijuana smokers, but I bet that kid smoking marijuana on the corner is an order of magnitude more likely to be carrying a firearm (or engaging in some other illegal activity) than the one who isn’t.

    • Are you honestly suggesting that we should keep certain behaviors criminalized just so police have reasons to conduct more searches that could potentially lead to more criminal behavior being discovered? Why not just go ahead and criminalize do-rags? I mean, I bet you most of those kids on the corner with do-rags are probably carrying illegal guns and the police wouldn’t have a reason to search them otherwise.

      • My guess is dat is fine with the cops searching anyone indiscriminately other than himself and his family.

      • A do-rag is not illegal behavior (criminal or civil) – and is a short-sighted analogy aimed at race-baiting.

        My understanding is that this law says that the behavior still violates the law, it just isn’t criminal (i.e., it’s a civil offense). In my opinion, this castrates the ability of the police to conduct stop and frisks (think of that policy what you will, but I support stop and frisk). Personally, I have no problem with the police conducting stop and frisks where there is reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior. By shifting marijuana possession from criminal–>civil, the police will no longer be able to stop and frisk for these offenses. I think that is a mistake.

        To answer your question directly: Yes, I think we should keep some behavior as a criminal offense (rather than downgrading it to a civil offense), because of the statistical propensity that the individual engaging in the minor offense is engaged in other criminal conduct. I think reckless driving is a perfect example.

        • “Personally, I have no problem with the police conducting stop and frisks where there is REASONABLE SUSPICION of criminal behavior.” And there my friend lies the problem…for some of us reasonable suspicion is being a black male.


          You can laugh it off or say whatever but until you have been the position where you have been maced, detained, driven into a dark alley, thought you might end up dead (no reason to drive in a dark alley) questioned and then arrested and never read your Miranda Rights. This all happened because I was wearing a du-rag and a ball cap while talking to two white guys who I was inviting to a private party I was throwing at the time but of course that was reasonable suspicion enough that I was selling drugs though of course none were found (well because I wasn’t selling drugs) like my fliers were (you know for the invite only party I was throwing) but that didn’t matter nor did the two white guys shouting to the officer that I didn’t do anything…Oh and of course because I was not “Yus Suh Mr. Officer Suh” with my response I am sure did not help either (but why should I show him any respect when he just randomly or not so randomly picks me off out of the street, f*ck him). You see it doesn’t matter what you are doing, as long as they get the arrest is all that matters, the prosecutor of course didn’t prosecute the case but by that time I had spent the night in jail all for the way I looked. So when you say “reasonable suspicion”, you should really think to yourself what does that really mean for others that may not look like me.

          • “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”

            Best contemporary quote on racism imho and apparently too nuanced for the overly simplistic mindset of your typical racism denier who believes that black president = no racism. This completely ignores the fact that he isn’t any more black than he is white but because of his appearance, our lovely racist history, and antiquated concepts of racial purity we know it only takes one drop.

          • Agreed. Where is that quote from?

          • Ta-Nehisi Coates

            From this extremely long and still relevant article:


    • epric002

      if you re-read the post, you will see that you can still be fined and jailed for *smoking* in public. the bill limits penalties for simple possession and the ability of police to stop/frisk/detain solely based on a marijuana smell. they’ll have to actually see someone smoking pot in order to stop them, and i don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    • Anyone “smoking marijuana on the corner” would be breaking the law and subject to up to 60 days in jail.

      • How on earth would that be enforced if possession isn’t criminal and the odor isn’t sufficient for a stop and frisk? As soon as anyone smoking sees the lights they’re going to ditch whatever they’re smoking.

        • gotryit

          The same way some people still manage to get arrested for drinking in public. Maybe they aren’t thinking straight, but sometimes people just do stupid things.

  • clevelanddave

    Allowing people to get high is a “great victory for social justice?” As far as I’m concerned, having more people stoned and high more of the time is a way to keep people down. If you want to reduce the disparity in convictions between blacks and others for marijuana, that is a change in how laws are enforced by the police and prosecuted by the courts: it should never happen based on race, but upon behavior. What it does not do is make marijuana safe for users, good for society at large, or be something that should be encouraged.

    • epric002

      if you replaced all those instances of “marijuana”, “stoned”, and “high” with “alcohol” and “drunk”, would you still feel that way?

      • Cleveland Dave has posted a bunch of times on PoPville about how he’s against this. My guess is that Drug War Inc supplies his paycheck. There’s LOTS of these types here in the DMV area. The Drug War should really just be called a Jobs Program.

        • Yeah, because every good parent aspires to have a kid who smokes with the best of them. Maybe in your world…

          But no, we should never encourage marijuana use. It dulls the mind, slows response time, and impairs judgment. I would say the same thing about excess alcohol use, but I don’t think you can smoke maryjane in moderation. The bottom line: do you want your baby brother smoking pot or cigarettes? It is not a desirable behavior, and it should be seen as a weakness just as cigarettes already are.

          • I always wonder if people that make statements like this have ever actually smoked (or knew someone that did) or if they’re just repeating what they learned in D.A.R.E.

            “It dulls the mind, slows response time, and impairs judgment.” – this is not 100% true. There are actually many, many types/strains of the plant and many produce very difference effects (some make you hungry, some alleviate nausea, some actually make your more alert, etc.)

            “I don’t think you can smoke maryjane in moderation.” – that’s nice. I actually beg to differ. I know plenty of people that enjoy maryjane recreationally (i.e., not every day) rather than chain smoking joints.

            “do you want your baby brother smoking pot or cigarettes?” – I don’t have one, but if I did, of course I’d say neither, but if he was going to smoke, I’d rather it be pot than cigarettes.

          • Ash, you wouldn’t want your baby brother to smoke cigs or pot. Why is that? Because you know this isn’t ideal. Why not respect your own body in the same way? We need to aspire to higher things than just a simple high to get us away from our daily drudgeries. I agree with Cleveland Dave’s idea that MJ just keeps people down- stupid, lethargic, and passive. Americans are already too stupid. Giving them more access and license to use pot is just going to speed up our march to Idiocracy.

          • epric002

            i wasn’t aware that this bill was encouraging or incentivizing marijuana use. it is decriminalizing it. it’s unfortunate that *you* think that you can’t smoke pot in moderation, but that doesn’t make it a fact. i know plenty of intelligent, educated, successful adults who do just that. you know, just like lots of people are perfectly able to drink alcohol in moderation? and honestly i’m delighted that my younger brother smokes pot instead of cigarettes.

          • There are so many d habits and behaviors that “keep people down” that you can hardly begin to enumerate them. Do you want to make binge-watching TV illegal? How about reliance on junk food? Drinking too much?

            Sure, you don’t want to encourage people’s vices. But you can’t make every potentially negative behavior illegal. (Notwithstanding the fact that people can responsibly use marijuana – with side effects that are paltry and/or their own damn business)

  • An ounce is a lot.

    • I used to think that anyone who bought by the oz was either smoking 24/7 or selling. Nowadays I buy in bulk for a few reasons, even though an oz lasts me and my lady friend about a year.

      First, when drugs are illegal, buying drugs sucks, so I try to minimize my transactions. Second, weed is expensive here and you get a bulk discount. Finally, if you mostly eat rather than smoke, it’s convenient to make a ton of butter all at once rather than constantly making small batches as you buy by the eighth.

      Now you know

  • The racial and socioeconomic dynamics of this city make this a fascinating debate on many levels. Colorado we are not.

  • The reason for the disparity in arrest rates between blacks and whites seems obvious based on a decade+ of direct observation. White people smoke weed in the privacy of their homes where police are unable to arrest them. For the most part, they are aware of the consequences and therefore they do not smoke outdoors or in public. Black people smoke weed outdoors and in public where they are susceptible to arrest. When they do so, they are often quite vocal as well which attracts law enforcement and neighbor attention. Yelling on the sidewalk or in your back yard about how high you are is not in the interests of self preservation.

    • Like everything in life, it boils down to economics. White people can afford to smoke in the privacy of their own privately-owned or rented dwellings. African-Americans often have multiple generations living under one roof, so smoking pot at home becomes difficult. Furthermore, if you smoke in publicly owned housing, you risk getting the rest of your family thrown out. So younger men and women start smoking in the street or in their car in order to not upset their families or put them at risk of expulsion from public housing.
      Money runs the world.

      • hahaahhahaahaahahahahaa. this is hilarious. i love the conjecture here posing as fact under the guise of “economics”.

      • I don’t think this is totally true. Who smokes weed outside? The vast majority that I see in my neighborhood are kids who still live with their parents.

        I grew up in a fairly wealthy suburb. High-schoolers who wanted to light up when their parents were at home would routinely (and alarmingly!) blaze in their cars while driving around. I’d say that was the default place to smoke weed.

        So, sure, maybe the kids in my neighborhood would smoke in their cars if they could afford them. Part of it has to do with the fact that they live in the city, though, where (a) lots of people don’t have cars even if they could afford it, and (b) there’s a culture of hanging out outside, unlike in the suburbs.

        • I agree. I’m from a very affluent suburb of NYC. High school kids were ALWAYS smoking pot outside, but usually in the woods (because that’s all there was around). Kids still got busted and even arrested, but it wasn’t so out in the open like it is here.
          Here in the city it’s a bit different because you’re in much closer quarters where neighbors can easily see/hear/smell the smoke and call the police. My neighbors’ kids for instance make no attempt to cover it up and are often extremely loud while smoking on their front porch (which bothers me a lot more than the smoking does).

    • there is a disparity in conviction rates too. not just arrest rates.

  • There’s some fuzzy math here:
    “According to another recent report, written by the Washington Lawyers Committee, 91% of all drug arrests in DC were of African Americans. In 2010 there were 40,353 arrests of African American adults; a number equivalent to 17% of the African American adult population of the District.”
    First off, you are assuming DC police only arrest DC residents, which is not true. How many of those 40,353 people were from a nearby jurisdiction? Secondly, you are assuming each person could only get arrested one time for this offense per year, which is also not true. How many of those arrests were for a second, third, or fourth offense this year?
    If the report had stated that 40,353 black DC residents had been arrested at least once for marijuana in the last year, you could get to 17% of the black adult population in DC. But, considering the two huge factors listed above, I would speculate it is more like 5%.

    • No there isn’t, just some weak reading on your part.

      There is a big difference between “a number equivalent to 17%” and “17%”

  • The undercover racism that goes on in here is truly disgusting. Who cares if one smokes pot in the “privacy of their home” or in public, under current law BOTH places of usage are ILLEGAL! Just because you can’t detect the scent of marijuana if it is smoked in the privacy of a home does not make it any less legal!!

    With that said, I support decriminalizing marijuana because we already have two substances that are legal killing far, far more people than marijuana could ever hope to kill: alcohol and tobacco. It’s time to end these insane drug laws that can be avoided only by those fortunate enough to have the guarantee of a “private” home. And if this bill fails, we should ratchet up the penalties for public drunkenness and smoking.

    If you want to lock up black men you should have the courage to just say so. Instead of hiding behind our current (and insane) drug laws.

    • no one’s being racist by pointing out that black people get arrested more often because they are smoking in public. If a white guy walks down the street smoking a joint, do you really think a cop will ignore it because he’s white? Cops aren’t targeting people because they’re black, they’re targeting them because they’re out in the open and obvious about it.

      • Ignore? No.

        Confiscate and issue a verbal warning? 1000 times yes happened to my white friends many times.

        Arrest and not press charges? Yes happened to my white self personally, probably wouldn’t even have been arrested if not for the property crime my friend was committing to get the cops called on us.

        It isn’t racist to point it out, it is racist to believe that it isn’t a problem or that we should blame the kids for not having absentee parents or cars to smoke in (which is more dangerous because they are driving and smoking). The drug war has criminalized a significant portion of two generations of minorities doing the same things as their white peers, that isn’t right I don’t care if you don’t like the smell.

        • Well, I’ve seen this many times over in MY neighborhood happen to black people smoking on the street. Cops just give warnings. Sure there is probably a few cases of targeting but it’s happening on both sides. It’s not always a race thing!

  • What does this mean for the purchase of less than an ounce? Will I be able to walk up to a corner boy and openly hand him cash? (How to know which ones stock what product?) Or will there be licensed sales facilities? Where are people going to be getting their now-legal quantities of weed to smoke in private?
    (I don’t use the stuff, so I’m genuinely clueless.)

    • It’s still illegal to buy or sell weed, regardless of quantity. That’s not changing – just the potential fine for you getting caught has been reduced.

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