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Wells believes the bill has bipartisan appeal.
“There are states where a lot of conservative congressmen and senators come from that are concerned about the costs of imprisonment, and they’re trying to get people out of prison who don’t need to be there,” Wells said.
Proponents point to a study released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed the District of Columbia had a higher marijuana arrest rate per capita than any of the 50 states, and that black residents are eight times more likely to be taken into custody than white residents.
“The expense and time required to arrest and prosecute people for simply possessing marijuana is a significant drain on the energies of our police and our courts,” Wells said during an Oct. 24 hearing that drew more than 25 witnesses.
Civil liberties groups, community members, legalization advocates and lawyers testified, largely in support of the bill, which has the backing of 10 out of 13 councilmembers.
Gray has also indicated he could support decriminalization, citing scientific research that finds marijuana no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco and the public’s shifting attitude towards pot. Taking a popular stance on the issue could be a smart political move for the mayor, who has not yet announced whether he will run for re-election in 2014.
“According to recent research, almost 75 percent of District residents support decriminalization of small amounts, and 58 percent of all Americans in a poll just this week support some kind of reform,” said Andrew Fois, a deputy in the D.C. attorney general’s office who spoke on behalf of the Gray administration. Fois also outlined tweaks to the measure Gray would like to see, including keeping in place penalties for distribution on school grounds, clarifying that smoking marijuana is limited to private property and making sure fines are enforceable.
Dissenting arguments came from youth advocates, religious leaders and a 10-year-old boy who sat patiently through four hours of testimony before taking a seat in front of the council in a suit and tie.
“Sometimes I can’t even go outside and play on our playground because teenagers and other people are smoking weed out there like they don’t even care about the children playing,” said LaDeveon Butler. He later held a hand-drawn cartoon up for the chamber’s camera that depicted a pot-smoking youth steadily losing IQ points.
Other witnesses at the hearing questioned how decriminalization might conflict with medical marijuana policies currently on the books. The city’s tightly controlled medical marijuana dispensaries have been operating for three months. Washington state is currently struggling to balance its medical marijuana system with the new recreational market the public approved via ballot initiative last year.
Some also testified in support of a measure from Councilmember David Grosso that goes a step further toward liberalizing drugs in the District.
The independent councilman is co-sponsoring the decriminalization bill, but he has also introduced a separate proposal to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. He believes it is the best method to combat the racial disparity in arrest rates.
“Quite clearly, the war on drugs has failed, and it’s time for the District of Columbia to step up and approach this issue in a commonsense and measured way,” Grosso said.