Washington D.C. Takes Major Step Toward Ending Marijuana Possession Arrests

Press Release January 14, 2014
Media Contact

<p>Contact: Tony Newman (646) 335-5384 or Grant Smith (202) 421-5031</p>

D.C. lawmakers approved legislation today that would eliminate criminal penalties under District law for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use during a meeting of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. The panel of five Councilmembers approved the measure unanimously. The bill next goes before all thirteen Councilmembers for final consideration.

The “Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013 (Council Bill 20-409)” would eliminate criminal penalties and instead subject a person in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana to a civil fine. The legislation was introduced in July 2013 by Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) with the support of ten out of thirteen Councilmembers.

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 those arrested are African American. Every year, thousands of people are arrested in the District of Columbia for the possession of marijuana. 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.

“Marijuana possession arrests have disproportionately criminalized African American residents and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars,” said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “This legislation represents a critical first step toward bringing D.C. law into step with public opinion and common sense.”

A poll conducted in April 2013 by Public Policy Polling, and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project, found three out of four D.C. voters support changing District law to replace criminal penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana with a civil fine similar to a traffic ticket. Furthermore, more than 60 percent of D.C. voters in the survey would support a ballot measure similar to those approved by voters in Colorado and Washington in November, which made marijuana legal for adults and directed state officials to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol. National surveys conducted last year by Gallup and the Pew Research Center found that, for the first time in 40 years of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans support making marijuana legal. The Gallup poll in October found 58 percent support and the Pew Research Center poll in April found 52 percent support. Last week, a CNN/ORC poll found 55 percent support nationwide for making marijuana legal.

During public hearings chaired last October by Councilmember Wells, witnesses criticized the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws on African Americans in the District and supported eliminating criminal penalties for possession. However, the Drug Policy Alliance and other witnesses urged Councilmembers to eliminate or significantly reduce the proposed $100 civil fine. The Drug Policy Alliance urged that a $100 fine would be too burdensome for poor residents and that African Americans would continue to be disproportionately punished for marijuana possession. Councilmember Wells has lowered the fine for possession to $25 in the legislation approved today.

In a letter delivered to Councilmember Wells in September, the Drug Policy Alliance and other community groups urged the elimination of the fines for possession and the decriminalization of home cultivation of a small quantity of marijuana. The letter also urged the Council to destroy all marijuana arrest and conviction records maintained by the D.C. government in order to prevent such a record from serving as a barrier to employment and other opportunities for thousands of D.C. residents who currently have a criminal history for marijuana law violations. In December, Councilmember Wells held a public hearing on legislation introduced by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) that would remove from the public domain many marijuana arrest and conviction records maintained by the D.C. government.  Advocates have praised Councilmember Wells’ leadership on addressing the harms of failed D.C. marijuana laws.

“All it takes is a single arrest for a small amount of marijuana to set in motion years of denied jobs, housing applications and other basic components to leading a self-sufficient life,” said Smith.  “This legislation would help end harmful marijuana arrests and reverse decades of lives derailed by enforcement of marijuana prohibition.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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