The District of Columbia City Council’s took the first step toward decriminalizing marijuana Tuesday. In an eleven to one vote, the proposal passed the initial vote. The “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014″ was first introduced in July 2013, and the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held public hearings in October. Current policy holds that possession is considered a misdemeanor, and can be punished by up to six months in jail, and/or a fine not exceeding $1,000.
If the bill passes, possessing one ounce or less of marijuana would be considered a civil offense, and subject to a $25 fine. It would also not be illegal to smoke on your own property. In a report accompanying the bill, the City Council explains that although percentages of white and African American adults living in the District are roughly equal, African American adults are arrested at a significantly higher rate. A study of arrests between 2009 and 2011 is cited, which found that eight out of every ten people arrested in D.C. are black, and the wards where arrests occur is skewed more toward the black residents.
Just under half, 46.9 percent, of all drug arrests in D.C. are for marijuana. Like the previous arrest statistics, the rate disproportionately affects African Americans, who made up 90 percent of marijuana arrests in 2011. This, the proponents in the report state, is taking valuable time and resources away from law enforcement officials in the District. It also unfairly creates a culture of stigmatization against the arrested individuals when they try to apply for housing or financial aid.
A Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C. carried remarks made by Councilmember Tommy Wells. ”The evidence of racial disparities in DC arrests for marijuana is undeniable and the socioeconomic impacts on African American residents are indisputable,” Wells stated. ”I am proud that we have taken this step, with support from so many on the DC Council, to decriminalize marijuana.” Wells introduced the measure.
Wells also expressed dismay about the stance taken by the District’s Mayor, Vincent Gray, and Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Gray had previously signaled that he favored decriminalization. In October, D.C. Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety Andrew Fois told a council committee the Mayor backed decriminalizing possession.
Now, the Associated Press reports that Gray sent a letter to the Council Tuesday prior to the vote. He laid out his concerns that the proposed $100 fine for smoking marijuana in public will not deter use. He added that Lanier is worried that the bill will lead to a revival of open-air drug markets.
“I am extremely disappointed that my colleagues, Mayor Gray and Chief Lanier, would choose to continue the pattern of injustice by supporting these amendments. I am not advocating for the use of marijuana in public or private, but an end to the criminalization and disenfranchisement” of mostly African American residents, Wells said. “We need to end the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests that keep our residents from job, higher education and housing opportunities. I will continue working with my colleagues in advance of our next vote to get this bill right.”
The bill now needs to be read for a second and final time, which could occur as early as February 18. If the bill passes its second reading, it will be sent to the Mayor. The Mayor then has ten business days to act, either signing the bill into law or vetoing it. If he does not act, it passes without his signature. When bills are not vetoed, they become Acts, which are sent by the Chair of the Council to Congress for review.