Marijuana arrests before new D.C. law appear to hold up even with changes

D.C.'s proposal to decriminalize marijuana goes further than almost any state in the nation, making possession punishment a small, $25 fine. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

A man arrested for smoking marijuana on a street in Northwest Washington. Two people caught in a suspected drug deal near Lincoln Heights in Northeast. A man questioned by police about the scent of burnt pot. A former federal government official allegedly smoking a joint as he drove through Chinatown.

The five are among those who were arrested hours before the District’s new drug law took effect midnight Thursday, making possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil penalty instead of a crime. They were in various predicaments, from allegedly smoking dope to perhaps selling it, and some went to jail for the night while others were in handcuffs a few hours and then released with criminal citations, neither of which might happen under the revisions.

Each case’s circumstances are unique, and it was difficult to discern from initial arrest reports whether any of the suspects would have been spared arrest had their encounter with police occurred Thursday instead of Wednesday. D.C. police are reviewing the reports, and spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said that some cases “may not meet the criteria for an arrest under the new law.”

For instance, on Wednesday night, Loic Johonson, 19, was arrested as he visited a friend’s house on K Street in Northwest. Officers driving past the apartment building said they smelled a “strong odor of burnt marijuana.”

Officers approached Johonson, who was holding a hand-rolled cigarette, according to court records. Johonson kicked the officer in the shoulder and chest, police said, and he was arrested after a scuffle and charged with possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and assaulting an officer. Under the new law, police are not allowed to use the odor of marijuana as a pretext to stop someone, and Johonson’s attorney, Patrice Sulton, said that could cut down on confrontations, which in this case ended with her client in far more serious trouble than a drug charge.

“This illustrates why this law was passed to reduce such contact,” said Sulton, who testified before the D.C. Council in support of the new law. If the incident happened four hours later, she said, “my client would not have been here.” Johonson spent the night in the D.C. jail and was released pending a July 28 hearing.

Also Wednesday, two people who police said in a report were seen conducting a “hand-to-hand” drug transaction on Benning Road in Northeast were arrested. Joyce Ann Robinson, 57, and Corey Stephen Davis, 28, were charged with possession and possession with intent to distribute. But the initial police report makes no mention of money being exchanged, and the new law allows a person to give someone else small amounts of the drug as long as there is no sale.

About 5:30 p.m., police said they responded to Kennedy Street in Northwest for a report of a large group of people selling and smoking marijuana. John Patrick Payne, 31, of Northeast was seen holding a “white hand-rolled cigarette” to his mouth while standing on a sidewalk, according to the police report. Police said that Payne told the officer he had a “marijuana card,” presumably for legal medical marijuana. The officer told him that “it was still illegal to smoke on public space.” Also, the new law deems it an offense that can lead to an arrest regardless of the amount.

About 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, a police officer said he spotted a driver smoking marijuana on Seventh Street in Northwest, near Verizon Center. Galen Joseph Reser, 65, was arrested and charged with criminal possession of marijuana. The Chevy Chase resident, who in 1989 was nominated by President George H.W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as assistant secretary for governmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, declined to comment.

Authorities said information was not immediately available on the number of civil citations issued in the District on Thursday, the first day that a minor pot bust could draw a $25 ticket instead of a criminal arrest with penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Proponents of the law as well as those skeptical of it said it could take up to a year to judge its effectiveness on erasing racial disparities in arrest rates, shown in several studies examining the District and other large cities. One civil rights group found that nine of 10 people arrested in the District on simple drug possession charges were black. The concern is that the arrests leave permanent scars on otherwise clean slates, which can impede college and employment opportunities.

The cases did nothing to quell the concerns of the law’s opponents. Delroy Burton, the president of the D.C. police union, has called the new law too vague and confusing for officers. He said that Reser, the former government official, would have been arrested regardless of the new law because the alleged infraction occurred in a public place and was witnessed by an officer.

marijuana quiz

D.C.'s new marijuana law took effect July 17. How much do you know about the District's new law? Take the quiz.

Burton said the arrest of Reser, who is white, shows that studies noting racial disparities are flawed. “It’s about where you use marijuana, not who uses marijuana,” he said. D.C. police have also complained about the studies, saying they fail to consider the complexities of urban policing in high-crime areas.

But D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), one of the legislation’s sponsors, said police are upset because they no longer have “a tool for detaining people, such as using the smell of pot to clear a crowded corner.”

Wells, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said that Reser could have been given a civil citation on the drug charge but would have faced arrest for allegedly smoking marijuana in the car, an offense that under the new law is now merged with rules banning open containers of alcohol in vehicles. But that carries a less-severe penalty than does criminal marijuana possession.

Arthur B. Spitzer, the legal director for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which conducted one of the arrest studies, said he hoped that D.C. police “take into account not only the literal language of the new law but the reason the council passed it: to try and do away with this extreme racial disparity.”

The law, he said, is to stop police from “continuing to arrest people in certain neighborhoods they wouldn’t be arresting in other neighborhoods.”

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Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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