D.C. Council members advance bill to eliminate jail, limit fines for marijuana to $25

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the group that last week filed a ballot initiative proposal with the city elections board that would allow those 21 and older to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to three plants at home. That group is D.C. Cannabis Campaign .


A fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store ahead of their grand opening on New Year's day in Northglenn, Colorado, in this December 31, 2013 photo. The District of Columbia took a step closer toward decriminalizing marijuana on January 15, 2014 with a move that will make smoking a joint in the U.S. capital a violation comparable to a parking ticket. (RICK WILKING/REUTERS)

Feel like walking along Constitution Avenue in the nation’s capital with an open bottle of beer?

Careful, it could cost you a fine of $500 and 90 days in jail.

But saunter along the same sidewalk with a bong or blunt and a bag of marijuana?

That could soon be $25, and no threat of jail time — (though officers could confiscate your bong).

That’s the upshot of a bill unanimously passed by the D.C. Council’s public safety committee Wednesday.

The full council next week will begin deliberation on the “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014.”

The legislation was born of an effort by D.C. lawmakers to correct what recent studies have said is a disproportionately high rate of arrests for blacks for marijuana possession in the District. And loosening rules on marijuana appears to be popular idea.

Support for legalizing marijuana has expanded dramatically in the nation’s capital, with residents who were split evenly on the issue four years ago now favoring sales of the drug for personal use by a margin of almost two to one, according to a Washington Post poll released Wednesday.

Even among the 34 percent of city residents who oppose legalization, nearly half support relaxing punishment for marijuana possession to a fine of $100 or less.

D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) authored the bill. Last year, he attracted a majority of the council to sign on either as introducers or sponsors of legislation, which initially proposed limiting penalties to $100.

After public testimony, Wells said $100 could be too punitive for poor residents and students, and he proposed lowering it to $25.

His public safety committee – which includes two fellow mayoral candidates, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) – unanimously endorsed the plan Wednesday. Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) also supported it.

Council member David P. Grosso (I-At Large), who has introduced a bill to legalize, regulate and tax sales of marijuana said the poll gives him hope for full legalization in the future. “We are moving towards a new day when it comes to marijuana regulation,” he said.

Bowser said it’s simply a practical matter at this point: “If it’s not a crime to possess it, where then are people buying it?,” Bowser said. “Dealing with how people can procure this decriminalized marijuana has to be the second step.”

That could come in November, activists for legalizing marijuana are seeking to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by putting the question to voters.

Last week, a group known as the D.C. Cannabis Campaign filed a ballot initiative proposal with the city elections board that would allow those 21 and older to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to three plants at home. The initiative as submitted would also allow marijuana growers to transfer, but not sell, small amounts to others and would also legalize the sale of cannabis paraphernalia.

Should the elections board agree the proposal is suitable for the ballot, backers would have 180 days to collect the signatures of more than 25,000 city voters in order to qualify. The board’s approval is not guaranteed: The activists withdrew a previous version of the initiative after the District’s attorney general lodged several objections, including the fact that marijuana possession remains against federal law.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he hadn’t yet reviewed the council’s emerging consensus on a $25 fine. Still Gray said he supports the council’s first step.

“I have been hopefully very clear to everyone that I support decriminalization. We have far too many people in our jails because of marijuana-related violations,” Gray said.

But on legalization “I’m not there yet,” he add.

In response to a question about whether he would back the November ballot measure, Gray said he hadn’t yet considered whether he would sign a petition but would not stand in the way of city voters weighing in on legalization. “We are uniquely disenfranchised” by having city laws subject to review by Congress, Gray said, “so, I am not going to add to the disenfranchisement.”

If passed by the full council, the law would go to Congress for review.

The civil fine of $25 for possession of marijuana would amount to less than most city parking tickets. Smoking marijuana in public places, however, could draw a fine of $100, and selling marijuana would remain a crime.

Also, if passed, Washingtonians would be wise to be careful where they wander with marijuana. On the Mall or other federal properties in the District, possession would continue to be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 and a year in jail.

Mike DeBonis contributed.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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