D.C. City Council aims to decriminalize pot and seal criminal records with new laws


When you think of politics in Washington D.C., you rarely think of speed, efficiency, or common sense. Yet, in just half a year, the nation’s capital has gone from the dark ages of full prohibition, to be poised now on the verge of passing two new measures that would place it among the most liberal of jurisdictions when it comes to cannabis legislation.
The first big development, reported on here back in October, was the D.C. City Council’s 10-3 landslide decision to move forward on legislation to end the current marijuana possession laws, and replace them with more fair and effective punishments for law breakers. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has also voiced his support for new regulations, tossing his clout behind what is already a supermajority in the City Council.

This new set of rules for non-violent, adult cannabis users in D.C. is a huge step forward for the District, and for the country as a whole, eliminating jail time, and dropping the fine from $1000 to $100 – as long as the amount you are caught carrying is deemed “personal “(an ounce or under) and as long as you were not caught with it while participating in a violent crime.
But it does nothing for those who suffer each and every day from the negative stigma and effects surrounding their own past cannabis related criminal records.
As it stands now, those records, virtually all criminal records in D.C., are “unsealed”, meaning they are available to the public and show up on most background checks. Busted with 30 grams of schwaggy pot back in ’97? In Washington D.C. that red flag on your permanent record could be enough to scare off a potential employer or landlord, and is a common question asked on most applications. Currently, getting popped with any amount of bud in Washington D.C., even under an ounce, will potentially land you in jail for up to six months, along with a $1000 fine and a criminal record.
Drafted with the intention of piggybacking the inevitable new cannabis decriminalization law, another new bill was introduced to the 420-friendly D.C. City Council yesterday which aims to re-seal all criminal records regarding non-violent weed-related crimes. This would effectively give tens of thousands of District residents with silly past pot convictions a much more level playing field.
Some of the major players in marijuana advocacy and reform have lent their support to the efforts happening in D.C., the importance of the nation’s capital “going green” certainly not lost on them. Allen St. Pierre, president of NORML, has written and spoken extensively about how weed-related convictions can ruin a person’s life, and likes what he sees happening in D.C., saying, “It’s generally a really good thing what the District is trying to do.”
Similarly, Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project has gone on record recanting stories that his organization has seen throughout the years of folks losing their homes, their careers, their welfare, their student loans, their rights to adopt children, and even their right to bear arms – all put in jeopardy due to unsealed prior convictions involving a sandwich bag or less of weed.
But perhaps the most compelling spokesperson in the debate in D.C., was District resident – homeless, but a resident nonetheless – Kevin Gordon-Cruz. One mistake involving weed over two decades ago still haunts Gordon-Cruz each day, he says.
Unable to join the military or gain steady and legitimate employment, he knows that putting his face and name on such a hot button issue probably won’t help him on his job search, but he hopes that his testimony to the City Council will be enough to persuade them to follow the example that so many other states have set when it comes to cannabis reform.
That both bills are in play simultaneously in Washington D.C. serves as a perfect backdrop for a ménage a trios of irony.
First, Deputy Attorney General Andre Fois laughing the subject off by saying that “[Judges are] fair every day, finding people guilty and innocent. This is one of the easier jobs that they have.” Of course, folks like Mr. Gordon-Cruz, or anyone who has unfortunately helped make up D.C.’s horrendous record on pot-related arrests, might beg to differ.
Then, the two tone-deaf anti-cannabis go-to arguments from D.C. Police Chief, Cathy L. Lanier which are…wait for it…her concerns “for the children” and her concerns with local cannabis reform laws and their “conflict with federal laws”. How convenient, Chief.
Finally, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, run out of office and arrested by the FBI for smoking crack in the early ’90s, he is now a sitting D.C. City Councilman. And while his support for marijuana reform is absolutely welcome, you can’t help but laugh when he says that “if [marijuana]gets on your record, you never get a job.” Crack, on the other hand…
Re-defining irony, however, are the over-aggressive paramilitary tactics that President Obama’s DEA has employed on marijuana dispensaries across the country, and has exercised as recently as this week in San Diego, all while the discussion rages about how to loosen local cannabis laws even further, right down Pennsylvania Avenue.