Congress Likely the Next Stop for D.C. Pot Decriminalization Bill
The D.C. Council gave final approval on Tuesday to a bill that makes possession of small amounts of marijuana in the nation’s capital a civil offense, with penalties similar to a parking ticket.
If enacted, the pot decriminalization measure could create an interesting dynamic for marijuana enthusiasts around Capitol Hill. The local law would not apply on land under federal government jurisdiction, meaning possessing the drug on the Capitol campus could still land offenders behind bars, even though small amounts would not be a crime in other parts of the city.
Under the pot decriminalization proposal from Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents Capitol Hill and is also running for mayor, getting busted with one ounce or less of the drug would result in a fine of $25. The criminal offense currently carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Wells called the bill a “step in the right direction” in a city that leads the country in marijuana arrests. Still, the version approved in Tuesday’s 10-1 vote is not as potent as the legislation Wells first proposed. He tried to decriminalize smoking in public, making it a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine — the same as littering — rather than a criminal offense carrying up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Councilmembers balked at the thought of marijuana smoke billowing from front porches, and people sharing joints on the sidewalk. The amended version of the bill would lower the maximum penalty for smoking in public to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. It would also protect individuals from being subject to detainment, frisking, searching, and arrest based solely on possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, or based on the smell of marijuana alone.
The bill does not change existing laws related to driving under the influence, which also raised some concerns.
Councilmember Vincent Orange, one of four members on the council running for mayor, accused his colleagues of being in a “rush” to pass the measure before the April 1 Democratic primary, without fully exploring the consequences.
“This is all about getting votes,” he criticized, before voting present on the bill.
Mayor Vincent Gray, who is running for re-election, supports efforts to decriminalize possession of marijuana, saying the drug is generally accepted to be no more harmful or addictive than alcohol or tobacco. Gray opposed the language that would have decriminalized public smoking, but supported decriminalizing possession as a way to reduce the number of D.C. residents with arrest records for petty offenses.
Once Gray signs the bill, it will head to Congress, where lawmakers will have 60 legislative days to review it.
While Congress thwarted D.C.’s last effort to change pot policy — a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana — supporters are confident decriminalization will stand. Seventeen states have adopted similar measures, and the Justice Department has taken a hands-off approach to enforcement.
As the D.C. Council cast its vote at city hall, a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel convened to review the Drug Enforcement Agency’s enforcement of marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington, where voters have opted to legalize the drug for recreational purposes. Advocates are pressing to get a referendum on legalizing the drug on D.C. ballots in November.
“This is a big step forward for our nation’s capital, as well as our nation as a whole,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which supported the decriminalization bill. “Clearly, marijuana prohibition’s days are numbered in the United States.”