D.C. Council weakens bill to decriminalize marijuana, keeps smoking in public a crime

D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is running for D.C. mayor, says his marijuana bill was amended to keep smoking pot in public a crime. (The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of marijuana but left smoking it in public a crime, keeping alive concerns about racial profiling in pot arrests in the District.

With an 11 to 1 vote, several council members reversed their previous support for a more far-reaching measure, weakening an effort to join the quarter of U.S. states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.

While they stuck with their plans to drop possession to a civil offense — akin to a parking ticket — council members decided not to decriminalize public smoking. They did, however, reduce the maximum jail sentence from six months to 60 days.

“I do not want the public smoking of marijuana around my kid — I do not,” said the council’s chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), raising his voice to press his point. “I do not want to have to somehow rationalize to her why that’s okay . . . and I dare say that I’m not alone as a parent.”

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) also withdrew his unconditional support for decriminalization. In a letter Tuesday to the council, he and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier warned that removing the threat of jail time could lead to widespread public smoking of the drug in the District.

But proponents accused the council of thwarting the original measure’s intended effect of protecting low-income African Americans, who because of crowded quarters in city apartments or public housing are more apt to smoke outside and be targeted by police.

According to recent studies, blacks account for nine out of 10 arrests for simple drug possession in the District, although they account for less than half of the city’s population. Rates of drug use among adolescents differ marginally by race.

“I realize that smelling marijuana is offensive to you, too, and that you wouldn’t want your daughter to . . . think that’s okay,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), responding to Mendelson. “But it's also not okay to criminalize a whole segment of our society.”

Wells, a candidate for mayor, had persuaded 10 of his 13 council colleagues, including Mendelson, to support the measure last year. Wells shepherded it through his public safety committee and reduced the proposed civil fine to $25 — down from $100 — saying it was a more affordable amount for low-income residents.

“The District of Columbia has a much higher arrest rate than Los Angeles, Miami or Philadelphia, and . . . our black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than our white residents,” Wells said in making a final, unsuccessful plea to the council to keep the bill in tact. “It is a paradigm shift, but it is about social justice.”

Advocates piled on, applauding the council’s initial vote but also blasting the move to retain some criminal penalties. Dan Riffle, a director with the Marijuana Policy Project, said the District’s law will leave a gray area in which police could claim seeing the light of a joint or a cloud of marijuana smoke in order to stop and question anyone.

“These last-minute amendments will simply expand stop-and-frisk policies in the District and will do nothing to fight the horrible racial disparity in marijuana enforcement,” he said.

The bill still faces a final vote, probably early next month, and several council members said they hope to amend the measure further. But the core of the legislation appeared likely to remain intact — a codification of wildly different sets of penalties for those found with marijuana in their pocket vs. those caught smoking it.

For possession of up to an ounce, the penalty in the District would be $25. Outside of Alaska, that would be the smallest monetary fine of any of the states that have decriminalized the drug — and would set the District far apart from the more severe penalties on the books in Maryland and Virginia.

If police catch someone smoking marijuana in public or on someone else’s property, that person would be subject to a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. In both cases, police could confiscate all drugs and drug paraphernalia. But on federal properties within the District, possession would still carry a possible jail term of a year or more.

According to a recent Washington Post poll, support for legalizing marijuana has expanded dramatically in the District, with residents who were split evenly on the issue four years ago now in favor of allowing possession of small amounts of the drug for personal use by nearly 2 to 1.

In his letter, Gray said he still supports decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana but said the city’s police department would have “very little ability to combat open air drug markets except through undercover operations.”

Selling marijuana would remain a crime, but council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), the sole no vote, said that would be almost impossible to enforce.

She held up a bulging plastic bag of parsley on the council dais that she said represented an ounce of marijuana. That’s the amount one person could possess for a $25 fine, or “enough to roll about 27 joints — and big ones, too,” she added, saying dealers will simply learn to carry less than an ounce.

Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said he would introduce an amendment next month to restrict District employers from drug-testing employees for marijuana unless the tests are otherwise required for public safety.

“All things being equal, we’re telling residents that . . . if you want to use marijuana for recreational use, that’s fine so long as you do it in the privacy of your own home, so why should you be held responsible for that?”

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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