Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

The wrong moment to ease D.C.’s pot laws

Don’t get too excited by the introduction, by D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), of the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act. Nirvana is not near. It may never come.

To that I would shout hallelujah — except council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, which has oversight of the issue, told me he’s still focused on marijuana decriminalization. His proposal, introduced this year, would make the possession of one ounce or less of pot a civil — as opposed to criminal — offense that would carry a fine of $100.

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

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“I’m not going to derail . . . decriminalization. It’s too important,” Wells said, adding that legalization “should go to voter referendum like they did in Washington state.”

Consequently, Wells said, his committee won’t consider Grosso’s bill during next month’s hearings on marijuana.

Grosso has argued that decriminalization doesn’t go far enough. But his proposal goes way too far, potentially turning marijuana into a D.C. industry right alongside tourism. It would allow for the production, transportation and sale of marijuana. It also would permit the transfer, without remuneration, of up to two ounces or less of dried marijuana or five grams of hashish and marijuana-infused products to anyone age 21 or older. The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) would issue and renew licenses to sell the drug, and a 15 percent wholesale or retail sales tax would be set.

Both bills follow the release this year of an ACLU report alleging racial discrimination in drug arrests in the city. Those results have been challenged, including by Police Chief Cathy Lanier and me. But the report succeeded in inciting anger. The issue of criminal-justice disparities is more complicated than simple numbers. Too often the cultural and socioeconomic realities of a specific community are not incorporated in the analysis.

Nevertheless Grosso, like Wells, took the bait. “I want to remove the opportunity for [the Metropolitan Police Department] to disproportionately arrest African Americans for nonviolent drug offenses,” he said. “This is a matter of justice.”

The District has become the latest pawn in a nationwide campaign by the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit organization, to change drug laws. It was a major force behind legalization in Washington and Colorado. “Objectively, [marijuana] is a less harmful substance than alcohol,” Mason Tvert, the group’s communication director, told me. “There is such widespread disrespect for the law, we need to reconsider the law.”

Decriminalization and legalization are inappropriate responses. They ignore the District’s culture, the potential dangers to youth and the struggles of some residents to rid their neighborhoods of the scourge of drugs.

Ward 7 council member Yvette Alexander (D) said she doesn’t support either idea: “If you don’t want to be arrested, don’t break the law.” She also asked what happens with decriminalization if someone who is cited isn’t “able to satisfy the civil penalty. Will they go to jail?”

Good question. The cure could create chaos and greater opportunity for arrests or jail time.

Moreover, both bills could intrude on the implementation of medical marijuana laws.

In an e-mail, Grosso said that the Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Amendment Act of 2010 would have to be repealed as part of his legalization bill: “Having two government agencies (ABRA and the Department of Health) regulating the same product and issuing licenses would be poor public policy.” He said medical marijuana dispensaries could retain their licenses, and regulations governing their operation could continue “unless inconsistent with the full legalization law.”

“The timing doesn’t seem appropriate,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the Takoma Wellness Center medical marijuana dispensary. He said he’s sensitive to “people being arrested and having their lives destroyed,” but he urged city officials to “watch and learn” first from what happens in Colorado and Washington.

If the proposals are about criminal-justice inequities, that problem may have already been addressed. In August, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. advised Justice Department attorneys to prepare criminal complaints to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. That directive could greatly impact what happens in the District, since only the U.S. Attorney’s Office is empowered to prosecute drug crimes.

Then, there is the Record Sealing for Non-Violent Marijuana Possession Act of 2013, introduced separately last week by Grosso. If approved, the bill would allow those “for whom non-violent misdemeanor or felony possession of marijuana is their only prior criminal history . . . [to] have all their records” sealed by the MPD and the D.C. Superior Court.”

I had urged in an earlier column that the council consider such action. Oddly, while that bill gets at the heart of Wells’s concerns, he said it, too, won’t be discussed at next month’s hearing.

Grosso seems unfazed by the delays or the opposition of his council colleagues to legalization. He said he expects eventual passage: “The tide is turning in this country.”

Is he delusional or, perhaps, suffering from temporary amnesia, forgetting the role that Congress plays in approval of local legislation?

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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