July 19, 2013

When a D.C. Council member has offered wacky, nanny-esque legislation, I teasingly have blamed ganja for his action. That joke could have new meaning if the council approves a proposal that would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil offense instead of a criminal offense. Watch out for the contact high.

The Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013” was rolled out last week by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a mayoral candidate, with Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David Grosso (I-At Large) as co-introducers. The bill would establish a $100 base fine for anyone caught with less than one ounce of the drug. Those younger than 18 would be required to attend a drug-awareness program.

“If you get a drug conviction, it’s near impossible to get a job,” Wells told me. “You can not get a commercial driver’s license, and young people are not getting hired on [District] construction sites.”

Two words most of us learned early in life — consequences and responsibility — apply here. But D.C. officials are unfamiliar with those concepts. Can’t meet the academic demands of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation? No problem; get a waiver. Can’t complete the requirements for continuing to receive public assistance? Don’t worry; the deadline’s extended. Want to smoke that joint on a city street? No problem; here’s a ticket. What happens when those fines aren’t paid?

Wells said that he’s mostly concerned about youngsters, including those using synthetic marijuana. “They are messing themselves up.” He isn’t keeping up: Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) talked to merchants Thursday about the dangers of synthetic marijuana, known as K2 or “spice,” which has been addressed by the council and in federal law. That and the fact that his bill surely would invite more folks to use marijuana show that Wells’s actions defy his intent.

Supporters of decriminalization have been spun by recent reports touting the difference in arrests between blacks and non-blacks, mostly whites, in various jurisdictions, including the District. Using Public Service Areas (PSA) 204 and 602, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital (ACLUNC) has asserted that D.C. police officers are discriminating against blacks.

It isn’t the first time the ACLU has needlessly used race to frame public policy debates. In the process, it casts African Americans as victims and stirs historic animosities between African Americans and police. Now the ACLUNC is using an apples-to-oranges comparison: PSA 204 is a racially diverse, middle- to upper-income community in Northwest with a population of 24,389; fewer than 10 percent (2,118) are under 18. By contrast, PSA 602 is a predominantly black community east of the Anacostia River with a population of 9,647; nearly 25 percent (2,184) are younger than 18, according to government documents.

What’s more, as Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has noted, in 2010, the period covered by the ACLUNC’s report, there were 12 calls dealing with drug complaints in PSA 204; in PSA 602, there were 518. Civic leaders in Wards 7 and 8 have been pushing merchants to stop selling paraphernalia associated with marijuana, including rolling papers. They don’t want drug use in their communities.

Unsurprisingly, every arrest doesn’t lead to conviction. William Miller, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, told me: “The vast majority of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases is resolved through pre-trial diversion programs or otherwise dismissed.” Those programs help reduce “recidivism and tackle the underlying problems that may contribute to crime without using traditional criminal justice sanctions.”

And getting a job after an arrest doesn’t have to be an issue. Arrest records can be sealed for most first-time offenses, according to D.C. law, although only a judge may order a record expunged. Instead of decriminalizing marijuana, the process for sealing or expunging arrest records could be made simpler.

If, as Wells and others have claimed, there’s a war on marijuana or blacks who possess it, my recent experiences don’t offer supporting documentation. Last week, for example, while waiting for a bus at 16th Street and Park Road NW, a high-traffic area where police cars often pass, I observed two guys — both African American — passing a joint in a nearby public park. The smell was so strong, I almost ran to a nearby convenience story for chips while visions of Haight-Ashbury screamed in my head.