Some D.C. Council members are crafting legislation to lessen the penalties for marijuana possession, hoping to settle the matter before outside groups petition the issue onto the ballot.
Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — who as chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee would shepherd the legislation — are formulating a proposal to eliminate criminal penalties for those caught with small amounts of cannabis or subject offenders to fines.
“Absolutely, it’s time we look at decriminalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia,” said Wells, who is running for mayor next year. “It’s time we enter the 21st century and stop criminalizing people . . . for what is not really a major crime.”
Wells and Barry said they will introduce a bill as early as this summer. Meanwhile, Anita Bonds (D-At Large) also is considering a measure to decriminalize marijuana or reduce penalties for possession. The initiatives would be debated by Wells’s committee.
Although there appears to be council support for a debate, those who support decriminalizing pot face considerable obstacles, including a skeptical council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D).
“I don’t think it’s the right time,” said Mendelson, who noted that Congress has blocked similar efforts in the District. “I don’t think decriminalization of marijuana will go over easily with Congress.”
But advocates say they think that there is growing momentum in the District and across the nation to change drug laws. On Monday, the Vermont Legislature voted to decriminalize up to an ounce of marijuana, joining more than a dozen states to remove the threat of jail for possession. Colorado is preparing to tax the sale of marijuana.
Steve Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project said advocates may seek a referendum on the matter in the District as early as November 2014. A recent poll of District voters commissioned by the group and the Drug Policy Alliance, which support decriminalizing marijuana, found broad backing for decriminalizing or legalizing the drug.
But Barry, who first supported marijuana decriminalization as mayor in the 1980s, said he would prefer that the council, instead of voters, decide the matter.
He said too many young African Americans get criminal records because of small amounts of marijuana possession. “These council members ought to stand up, and I think they will, on behalf of their constituency, who suffers mightily from this archaic situation,” said Barry, who was arrested for cocaine possession in 1990 while mayor.
Barry said he and Wells hope to get “six or seven” council members to co-sponsor a measure. On Wednesday, David Grosso (I-At Large) pledged his support but added that he wants to broaden the discussion to include legalization.
“The people on the streets dealing are the nonviolent drug offenders who are going to jail for dealing drugs,” said Grosso, who at age 22 was arrested in 1993 in Florida for having marijuana. “I think that is a serious problem.”
Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) compared the marijuana debate to the ongoing debate over regulating food trucks. “It’s just something we are going to have to address,” said Orange, who is undecided on decriminalization.
Mendelson, however, said the issue should be decided by voters instead of the council to avoid congressional scrutiny. “As a matter of strategy, an initiative might be a better way to go, strategically, because then you have all the voters speaking,” he said.
Under city law, possession of up to half a pound of marijuana is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine on a first offense.
Most first-time offenders are sentenced to community service and are eligible to have their records expunged. But Paul Zukerberg, a lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases, said many offenders get criminal records because they lack the resources to get their records expunged.
Zukerberg, who unsuccessfully ran for the council on a decriminalization platform, said thousands of people cannot find work because of criminal records.
“You have to aggressively go after it to have the charge removed,” he said. “And, as a practical matter, once your name is in a public database for a number of years, to try to go back and erase it is futile.”
Regardless of what happens on the council, Wells’s decision to push for decriminalization means the issue will most probably become part of the mayoral race.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who has yet to announce whether he will seek reelection, has said the city should fully implement the medical marijuana law before considering decriminalization.
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), a candidate for mayor, said she’s considering her response but also thinks the city should stay focused on its medical marijuana program.
“I think the notion about the concern of the number of people in our criminal-justice system because of minor drug offenses warrants looking at,” said Bowser, who is also on the judiciary committee. “But I am not prepared to say we need to go another step.”