DC City Council votes to decriminalize marijuana possession

Before becoming law, the bill must be signed by Mayor Vincent Gray and given a green light by Congress

A main motivator for the law is to make the enforcement of marijuana laws more equitable among poor and rich communities.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

A bill decriminalizing marijuana in the U.S. capital received final approval from Washington's city council on Tuesday, a move that could make possessing pot a violation comparable to a parking ticket.

The bill, which passed the second of two votes with the support of 10 of the 13 city councilors, will now go to the desk of democratic Mayor Vincent Gray, who supports the measure.

"It will have a profound impact on the people of the District of Columbia to decriminalize this marijuana," said Councilman David Grosso, adding that he looked forward to the "next step" of taxing and regulating the sale of the drug. "I think that should be done expeditiously here in this body and, hopefully, with the support of our mayor."

The bill makes possession of less than an ounce of pot a civil violation. The penalty is a $25 fine, lower than most city parking tickets.

Currently, anyone in the capital caught possessing marijuana without a medical permit can be charged with a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The new legislation "moves us in the right direction," said Tommy Wells, a city councilman and the bill's sponsor. Wells noted that the city makes more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana possession.

A main motivator for the law is in how disparate the enforcement of marijuana laws can be in the city, where – despite an economic boom in recent years – a sharp divide remains between rich and poor.

Grant Smith, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to global drug policy, said that while the law isn’t perfect, it could help alleviate unfairness in how police apply D.C.’s drug laws.

Even though black and white Washingtonians use marijuana at about the same rate, Grant said, black residents of the nation’s capital are far more likely to face arrest for possession of the drug.

“The areas of D.C. where you see the most arrests," Smith said, "also happen to be where you see the highest poverty rates, and where African-Americans comprise the majority of the population there's a concentrated police presence in these neighborhoods.”

To Grant, one shortcoming of the bill is that public use of marijuana remains a misdemeanor similar to carrying an open container of alcohol in public; the bill only decriminalizes possession of the drug.

The bill still has to get the green light from Congress, which has final approval over D.C. city council decisions.

A congressional source told Al Jazeera there have been “no signs” of interference from Congress but that “it also just happened, so we’ll see.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s shadow representative who can address Congress but not vote, said in a statement that she welcomed the measure and vowed to fight if Congress tries to block the law.

“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,” Norton said in a statement. “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.”

While marijuana is still illegal under federal law, U.S. states and a handful of cities that have removed the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of the drug.

Colorado and Washington state have gone even further, legalizing marijuana outright — a step that Rhode Island is currently considering.

However, there’s a wrinkle to D.C.’s decriminalization of marijuana that most cities don’t need to contend with. Much of the capital is federal territory, comprised of national parks, federal buildings and even an Air Force Base. There, federal marijuana laws will still apply.

The U.S. Park Police, which oversees both the national mall and a huge forested zone in the middle of the city called Rock Creek Park, told The Washington Post that there had been 501 incidents involving marijuana in 2013.

Some actions that would be considered legal if the bill becomes law, like possessing multiple bags of marijuana, could fall under federal drug dealing statutes and earn violators years in jail, the Post reported.

“Our sense is that federal law enforcement agencies currently do not make many possession arrests and probably will not in the future unless someone is doing something blatant, such as openly using marijuana on the Mall or other federal land,” Smith told Al Jazeera, saying that the D.C. City Council’s bill will still help make life more fair for Washingtonians.

“D.C. residents who are anywhere in the District other than federal land will no longer be subjected to arrest by Metropolitan Police Department officers,” he added.

Al Jazeera and Reuters. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report.

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