It seems like things are moving at light speed for the pro-marijuana movement in D.C. Last month, Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) drafted a bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, which multiple colleagues signed on to. Later in July, the city’s first legal pot sale happened in Northwest. Even CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta is getting in on the act.
But partial decriminalization, should it come to be, is as far as things need to go. Full legalization, as David Grosso (I-At Large) has said he would support, is not necessary. No need to further potentially anger Congress with a weed crusade when we’re working on budget autonomy and a whole host of other causes.
You don’t have to be a pothead to know that an ounce of marijuana is quite a bit of product. So why are people referring to it as “a small amount”? Because everybody else does. But I consulted one of the nine people actually authorized to purchase marijuana legally in the city. The man, who only went by W for this story, pointed out that an ounce is plenty, even for a heavy smoker like himself.
“I guess it depends on the person. For me, it would probably take me maybe 2 or 3 weeks. For somebody who’s just like a casual smoker, an ounce could probably last them up to a month or more,” W said. “I’ve never bought an ounce, never in my life. I buy like, halves and by quarters [of an ounce].”
The standard was adopted because when Wells and Barry, who first thought to team up for the bill more than two years ago, looked at standards across the country as an example. “We looked at other states that already had a history. We looked for other states that have laws on decriminalization. So that we didn’t have to re-invent the wheel, but also to see if they worked. And we liked the Massachusetts law,” Wells said. “They had, obviously, a huge decline in arrests and it didn’t seem they had much problems with implementation.”
The Post’s Dylan Matthews reported last month that an ACLU report released this year, suggests “that legal reforms, in particular decriminalization, is effective at reducing overall arrest rates. Massachusetts decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009, and arrests dropped an enormous amount.” From over 8,500 a year in 2007-2008, to more than 1,000 per year in 2009-2010, after decriminalization was put in place.
Currently, 16 states have lessened the penalties for marijuana consumption. Of those, only Connecticut and North Carolina have set their threshold at lower than an ounce. But it’s still a misdemeanor offense in North Carolina.
In a city where empty baggies are easily spotted on busy streets, is it possible that allowing people to carry up to an ounce without the threat of jail time could make low-level trafficking easier? Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier doesn’t think so. “I don’t think it facilitates distribution so much. I don’t know what was the threshold that the council member used to pick that quantity, but that’s like smokers: They can buy a pack or they can buy a carton. And sometimes it’s cheaper to buy not just a joint or a cigarette, but to buy a pack or a carton,” Lanier said. “I think that may be part of the mentality of the average purchaser. So I don’t think to the average personal consumption person they think an ounce is really a whole lot of marijuana if they’re the kind of person that buys it once a month.”
And while Wells and Barry are responsible for drafting this legislation, I give primary credit to Paul Zukerberg for putting this issue in the public eye. He ran for Council earlier this year with decriminalization as his primary platform. He finished 5th out 7 in April’s special election for an At-Large seat.
Zukerberg thinks an ounce is an understandable cutoff point. “These are all judgment calls and you have to draw a line somewhere. I think if you look at different states, most states seem to be in that range. … I guess what they’re saying is as a first step we want to decriminalize it for people who more likely than not have it for their own use and they’re not in the marijuana distribution business,” Zukerberg, a lawyer, said. “It’s a first step. If we don’t like it we can change it and we can adjust it in time. It sounds like a good place to start.”
As for implementation, don’t expect to see officers pulling out digital scales on their car hoods. “Our narcotics people know an ounce when they see it. If it’s in traditional packaging, it’s even easier to know what an ounce is. You know, ziploc baggies. Eyeballing an ounce is eyeballing an ounce, for most narcotics people. You know, the old four finger rule which I’m sure you’ve heard somewhere,” Lanier added.
The bill, drafted in July, is ostensibly designed to reduce arrests of blacks, whom statistics show are arrested at a higher rates than white for drug possession. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union, released in June, shows that blacks were more than eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
Something Wells felt he had to help mitigate after finishing an item on his summer reading list. “I’m embarrassed to say this, because this has been going on around us, and I knew it, but I didn’t know it. I read the book The New Jim Crow,” Wells admitted. The book describes how as a result of over-policing and a flawed correctional system, more blacks are under correctional control than were slaves in 1850.
“I’m on the city council and I’m a lawmaker. I wanted to think of what could I do, while I’m on the council to make a difference while I’m here,” Wells, who’s also running for mayor said. “What would I regret after leaving the council and say, I wish I’d done something about that.”
Whether or not it will work is another question. Lanier isn’t convinced. “It’s certainly not going to have any impact on arrest rates for juveniles. Juveniles, we divert from criminal charge, about 900 kids a year. I can’t ever think of a time when a first time possesion marijuana case of a juvenile was ever processed as an arrest,” she said. “In fact sometimes, not even the second time.”
Barry and Wells hope to hold a hearing about the matter in Ward 8 later this year. But, does Wells, the chairman of the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee see things going much further, soon?
“In terms of taking the next step to say no, actually, this substance ought to be allowed as part of options of goods that can be bought and sold in the District, I’m not ready to take that step,” Wells said.
That’s an opinion that Lanier is in agreement on. “I’m struggling to find the upside. I kind of think like a parent and a police officer. And an academic. I’ve looked at the studies and I think it’s a lot easier to get cigarettes because they’re legal. If they weren’t legal, would I have ever put my hand on a cigarette? Probably not.”