Washington D.C. may soon decriminalize marijuana, making an ounce of pot or less a $25 fine on par with a parking ticket instead of the $1,000 fine and six months in jail possession of that amount currently carries. Councilman Tommy Wells says that the move is necessary to help curb the overwhelming racial profiling by police in D.C. as well as keep down court and legal costs.
“We have to take action to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana and reform our criminal justice system,” he wrote in a press release week.
Lawmakers are set to vote today on the Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Act. The bill was actually introduced last year, but has gone through several committees to get before council today. The fine of $25 is the lowest in the country, except in Alaska where possession of limited amounts won’t get you anything.
Most assume the bill will move forward with nine out of the 13 city council members openly approving of the plan so far. It’s hard to argue with the move, though, especially from the standpoint of wanting to end racial bias in our nation’s capitol. Statistics from the ACLU last year showed that being a pot smoker and being black made you eight times more likely to be arrested than your white friend who smokes the exact same amount of weed.
“We have hundreds of young black men, black boys, being locked up, for simple possession of a couple bags of marijuana,” Councilmember Marion Barry, who co-sponsors the bill, told USA Today. “We don’t want to be proud of the wrong kind of thing here. We need to stop that kind of injustice from happening.”
And the cost for all of that is staggering. In 2010 the city spent 18 million enforcing marijuana possession laws to the tune of about $18 million. They ended up having a higher arrest rate than any state in the union, with 846 arrests for every 100,000 people.
The idea is that by dropping the penalty for cannabis possession, police will be less inclined to write the tickets, though that hasn’t always been the case in the 15 other states where possession citations are still written (and can still end up costing cannabis users time, money and an interaction with trigger-happy police that they didn’t need).
For those reasons (and more), several D.C. activists and pro-pot lobbies have been pushing for council to legalize and tax cannabis much like Colorado. Adam Eidinger with D.C. Marijuana Justice says that his group is considering a legalization ballot initiative this year.
The decriminalization measure may have support at the local level, but any laws would also have to be approved by the U.S. Congress. But some have said that there is plenty of longstanding precedent set by other states for decriminalization.
If passed, the bill would apply to Washington D.C. but not on federal property within Washington D.C. So, toking one up with Abe at the Lincoln Memorial remains illegal (for now).