Such a move wouldn’t go as far as changes by Colorado and Washington state, where voters have legalized marijuana. Seventeen states also have eliminated jail time for possession in favor of civil finesof up to $1,000. If the bill passes, the District would rank behind only Alaska, which has no fine, as the most forgiving.
Even advocates of full legalization are surprised by the breakneck speed of the legislation in the District, where lawmakers have long been reluctant to test Congress on federal drug laws.
Two recent studies that ranked the District among the worst for racial disparity in marijuana arrests and the Justice Department’s growing leniency toward state plans for the medical usage of marijuana have given formerly reluctant Democrats cover to support the idea.
The city’s coming mayoral election has also turbocharged the debate.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is seeking the Democratic nomination, wrote the bill. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), another mayoral candidate, has signed on in support. So has David A. Catania (At Large), who might run as an independent. And as Gray decides whether to seek reelection, he has bowed to the political reality that the measure is likely to clear the council in December or January with a supermajority that could override a veto.
Wells has cast the effort in lofty terms of lifting up the city’s African Americans and has done so comfortably, with Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) by his side as co-author.
“Less than one ounce would not be a crime. . . . That would no longer mean a drug-arrest record,” Wells said Wednesday night to applause at a community hearing on the bill in Anacostia.
On Thursday, during a continuation of the hearing in the D.C. Council’s chamber in the John A. Wilson Building, Wells said: “Punishment for drug crimes disproportionately falls on the shoulders of blacks and Latinos. . . . We don’t want to accuse the police, we don’t want to accuse anybody . . . but it is a major societal justice problem, and we are going to fix it.”
The numbers that have shaped the debate so far have come largely from a study published in July by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and another earlier in the year by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The study by the lawyers’ committee found that nine of 10 people arrested in the District on charges of simple drug possession are black, even as blacks account for less than half the city’s population.