High Times in DC: Marijuana Decriminalized in U.S. Capital

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For anyone who believes the push for marijuana legalization is restricted to liberated states out west, it’s time to look at the nation’s capital. The Washington, D.C., City Council voted to remove harsh punishments for possession of small amounts of marijuana on March 4 by an overwhelming majority of votes. Once D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signs the bill into law, which he’s expected to do, the punishment for holding pot in the capital city will amount to a slap on the wrist and a fine of $25.

The measure in the D.C. Council will take the teeth out of laws now on the books in the nation’s capital. As it stands, marijuana possession is punishable by fines up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Under the new law, possession will be considered a minor infraction on the level of a parking ticket but cost less, while anyone caught smoking pot in the streets will face fines up to $500 or 60 days in a D.C. jail. Council members voted ten to three in favor of decriminalizing.

Supporters of the movement to legalize marijuana rejoiced at the news, noting it marks a turn for the East Coast and stands as a powerful symbol by going into effect in the nation’s capital. Tommy Wells, the Councilman who sponsored the bill, told Reuters that the law would help move the district away “in the right direction,” i.e. away from the current policy that has police arresting over 5,000 people on pot charges annually in D.C.

On top of the waste of tax dollars and attention of the police force, the marijuana legalization debate has civil rights implications as well. African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested than Caucasians for marijuana offenses, a ratio which is even worse in Washington, D.C.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, African Americans are arrested eight times more often than Caucasians for pot offenses in D.C., a number which has become a powerful tool in the campaign to decriminalize possession. A recent Washington Post poll showed that district residents were ready for the change.

The random phone survey of 1,000 D.C. residents found 63 percent favoring outright legalization of marijuana, while 34 percent opposed the measure. Caucasian’s supported legalization by 73 percent to 23 percent. As recently as 2010, polls showed D.C. residents in a near deadlock on the marijuana legalization question.

With Colorado and Washington both legalizing marijuana, the movement has made huge strides in recent years. Once Mayor Gray signs the bill into law, D.C. will bring progressive drug policy to the East Coast. It isn’t the first time the D.C. Council has shown leadership on progressive issues. In 2010, D.C. became the first major city on the eastern seaboard to tax plastic bags in grocery stores in order to combat issues of waste and waterway pollution.

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