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D.C. Takes Big Step Toward Ending Marijuana Arrests

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Visiting the nation’s capital with a joint in your pocket could land you up to six months in jail under D.C. law. But that could soon change.

Washington, D.C., lawmakers voted on Wednesday for a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. If the bill becomes law, people stopped with an ounce or less of marijuana will face a $25 fine, instead of arrests, jail time and a criminal record. The fine for those caught smoking will be $100.

All five members of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee supported the bill, which is now set to go before the full 13-member council sometime in the coming weeks. If the bill gains support first from the the full council, and then from Mayor Vincent Gray and Congress, as expected, D.C. will be the latest jurisdiction in the U.S. to loosen restrictions around marijuana in the face of shifting public opinion on the drug and growing disenchantment with the punitive policies of the drug war.

“Symbolically, it’s very important,” said Grant Smith, a national policy expert for the Drug Policy Alliance, a D.C.-based group that advocates for the decriminalization of drugs. “People from all over the world come here to see our monuments, to enjoy our neighborhoods, and it’s going to be very important for them to know that people who live in the District of Columbia are no longer going to be subject to arrest and a criminal record for possession of a small amount of marijuana, once this legislation has passed.”

It isn’t just the city’s symbolic significance that makes the legislation meaningful, pot advocates add.

Like other laws around the U.S. that criminalize pot possession, the district’s restrictions disproportionately penalize African-Americans, despite plenty of evidence (including government surveys) showing that blacks are no more likely than whites to use the drug.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers' Committee issued reports showing a vast racial disparity in the city’s drug arrest rates.

According to the Washington Lawyers' Committee, arrest statistics from 2009 through 2011 revealed that blacks accounted for nine out of 10 drug arrests in the city, even though they make up just slightly more than half the city’s population. Marijuana arrests were far more common than arrests for any other drug.

Councilmember Tommy Wells, a Democrat representing Ward 6, is one of the eight councilmembers who introduced the bill last July. At the council meeting on Wednesday, Wells talked about the social and economic barriers faced by people who have been arrested for marijuana possession.

"An arrest record impacts a person's ability to keep the job they have or obtain a new one, as well as their ability to keep their housing or obtain an education," Wells said.

At least one member of the council has publicly objected to the bill.

Councilmember Yvette Alexander says she worries that decriminalization could boost the city’s illegal drug market. “If you know it’s just a fine that people have to pay, it’ll encourage more people to sell it,” she said.

Although most arrests for marijuana possession in recent years have been made by the city’s local police force, Alexander also noted that the Capitol Police and FBI could still arrest people on marijuana charges under federal law.

The bill is expected to pass the full council by a wide margin. After garnering the mayor’s signature, it would then go on to Congress, which controls the district’s funding and could effectively stop the bill from becoming law.

But advocates don’t expect that to happen. “I think there’s a growing recognition in Congress and elsewhere that the time has come to deal with the harm of marijuana prohibition,” said Smith, of the Drug Policy Alliance.

It wasn’t always so.

In 1998, nearly 70 percent of district voters supported a medical marijuana ballot initiative, but Congress responded by cutting off funding to the program. After more than a decade of court battles, Congress lifted the ban in 2009, and medical marijuana became legal in the district a year later. The city’s first marijuana dispensary opened just last year.

Change has been slower to come to the district than to other jurisdictions. “Many states, of course, have already decriminalized marijuana, so really D.C. is just catching up with the will of the people,” Smith said.

In a sign of how much that will has changed in recent years, even Bob Barr, the conservative former congressman from Georgia who led the effort to block the D.C. medical marijuana program, has become a critic of marijuana restrictions, citing his opposition to government intrusion on people’s lives.

In 2007, Politico reported that Barr was working as a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for pot legalization.

“In light of the tremendous growth of government power since 9/11, it has forced me and other conservatives to go back and take a renewed look at how big and powerful we want the government to be in people’s lives,” he said at the time.

With support for marijuana reform continuing to grow in Congress and in states around the country, the future looks bright for D.C.’s marijuana bill.

Still, even if the bill passes, sightseers should exercise the usual precautions, advocates say.

Asked about the potential repercussions of bringing some pot on a trip to, say, the Washington Monument, Smith acknowledged that people will still be subject to arrest by Capitol or Park Police if found with any amount of marijuana, especially in those parts of D.C. owned by the federal government.

“Any monuments, federal parks or other federal landmarks would particularly apply,” he said.

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