On Thursday, July 17, 2014, the new District of Columbia marijuana laws went into effect after independent studies by the civil rights lawyers in 2009 through 2011 revealed that the former possession of marijuana laws had a disparaging effect on the number of blacks arrested and charged for marijuana possession. In effect, the police's use of the former marijuana laws appeared according to independent studies, to target young blacks and Hispanics which has lasting effects on their record. The new marijuana laws, contrary to what some may believe, do not make it legal to possess and smoke marijuana. They decriminalize possession of marijuana of less than one ounce, making it a $25 civil fine without an arrest, handcuffs, fingerprinting and jail. But the law is not quite as simple as it may sound.
There are many nuances to the new marijuana law which some police officers claim will make it difficult for them to enforce. And the police are required to take a tutorial and training before making an arrest for marijuana. No one is free to light up marijuana and start walking and smoking on the streets of D.C. Smoking marijuana in public is still prohibited in the District of Columbia regardless of the amount and subject to prosecution by the D.C. Attorney General's office. Operating a vehicle while suspected of being under the impairment of marijuana or drugs is still illegal and subject to the same arrest, charges and jail, as before. Due to the nuances of D.C. and federal property in the District of Columbia, smoking in public on federal property is still illegal and subject to prosecution by the U.S. Attorney's office, regardless of the amount in possession.
The new marijuana law makes marijuana possession of less than one ounce subject to a civil fine of $25. And any arguments against the fine or a defense against the fine will be heard by the Office of Administrative Hearings. The $25 fine for possessing marijuana less than one ounce makes it similar to the jaywalking fines in DC or littering fines. They will not be heard in a criminal court with a criminal charge and possible conviction. And the marijuana will be confiscated.
One distinct change will be in the area of car stops. If a police officer stops someone for a red light and then smells or detects the odor of marijuana, the smell alone will not be reasonable grounds for a search of the vehicle or its driver and occupants.
The independent report by the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs of studies run from 2009- 2011 found that 8 out of 10 adults arrested in the District are black where there are roughly 47% black and 43% white residents. It further found that 9 out of 10 people arrested for simple drug possession are black. It almost goes without saying that the disparities are racially based in nature. The report was researched with the help of prominent lawyers and retired or senior federal or district court judges.
The new law is one step in the right direction to avoid the racial disparities in arrests involving simple marijuana possession of less than one ounce. While there are many more racial disparities that affect the number of blacks arrested and charged with various crimes, the new marijuana law is one step in the right direction. And it will lessen the number of those minorities who are charged for something seemingly so innocent but may have a negative lifetime impact. While the law may seem vague and confusing to some with its various exceptions, over time, it will prevent many persons from a lifetime of heartache and pain from what a criminal conviction bring.