02/28/2014 03:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014

Locking People Up for Public Marijuana Smoking Is Not the Answer

"I do not want the public smoking of marijuana around my kid -- I do not." D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson recently spoke these words as Councilmembers met to consider legislation that would end arrests for the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. "I dare say that I'm not alone as a parent," Mendelson continued, "feeling strongly that way."

Chairman Mendelson cited this concern as justification for continuing to arrest people in the District for using marijuana in public. Many Councilmembers agreed and voted to retain criminal penalties for the public consumption of marijuana. This motion set aside plans by the Council that would have ended arrests for public marijuana use and alternatively punished people caught smoking in public with a $100 civil fine. Police officers would have continued the practice of seizing any marijuana found in public.

It is a shame that Councilmembers appear ready to give the final nod to continuing a failed policy that puts people in cages for using marijuana. Threatening people who consume marijuana in public with arrest and a 60 day jail sentence will not deter this behavior. It will only perpetuate the harms that we have seen from failed drug war policies.

We have already witnessed the criminalization of thousands of African American, low-income and homeless residents for the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana while most white residents have faced no consequences for possessing and using marijuana.

Even though District residents use marijuana at roughly the same rate regardless of race, the criminalization of public smoking could perpetuate these same racial and class disparities in marijuana law enforcement that the decriminalization bill hoped to resolve. Thousands of displaced and homeless residents who have no other choice but to survive in public spaces should not be punished more severely for smoking marijuana than their more affluent neighbors.

Locking up a person at taxpayer expense for eight weeks of their lives for a health issue not only makes zero sense, but the resulting criminal record predisposes that person to months or years of denied applications for jobs, housing, professional licenses, business and student loans essential to leading a self-sufficient life.

When thousands of District residents are living with these circumstances on account of a marijuana arrest and cannot find work or care for their families, our society has a lot more to be worried about than someone smoking marijuana on a sidewalk. Concerns about public smoking do not justify saddling more District residents with a criminal record and undermining entire communities.

Public smoking can be dealt with evenly and humanely if we give our society the chance to police itself. Most people comply with restrictions on tobacco smoking in public facilities. Many people would also rather avoid being criticized by a friend or stranger for lighting up a cigarette where they shouldn't. Major reductions in tobacco use have been achieved through education about the health harms without resorting to criminalization.

As a parent, I share Chairman Mendelson's desire to limit marijuana smoking in public places. But when the day comes when I must address marijuana use with my daughter, how will I explain our society's irrational dependence on criminalization as an answer to health issues like marijuana use?

I want my daughter to grow up into a society where drug use is treated as both a personal and public health issue, not an issue that we expect the criminal justice system to deal with. We should discourage people from smoking marijuana in public areas by treating it as a civil infraction and enlisting the public to help send the message that public smoking in most places should be discouraged.

Councilmembers should rethink criminalization. District residents have said loud and clear that the possession and use of marijuana should no longer be treated as a criminal matter. Punishing people with a civil fine rather than handcuffs for smoking marijuana in public would ensure that we do not perpetuate social injustice and a policy that has not worked.

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