D.C. lawmakers took more than 15 years to allow cancer patients to use marijuana for their pain. But over just a few months, city leaders have coalesced around a plan to decriminalize small joints, blunts or bowls full of marijuana in the nation’s capital.
Ten of 13 council members have signed on to a bill to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana punishable by a fine of no more than $100. On Wednesday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said for the first time that he supports the idea. And on Thursday, the author of the bill and the office of the attorney general said they could agree to an even smaller, token fine of $25.
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.
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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.
The ACLU study also found that the District is arresting more people than ever for marijuana possession: It was up 60 percent in the decade that ended in 2010, with black residents accounting for much of the jump.
Over the summer, the NAACP criticized authorities in the District and other cities for using a pretense of smelling marijuana to stop blacks.
The legislation doesn’t go as far as some legalization advocates would like, and they are awaiting the outcome of Wells’s bill to decide whether to press ahead with trying to get a nonbinding referendum on the ballot in 2014 to fully legalize and regulate marijuana sales in the city.
Backers of that idea said Thursday that they might abandon a costly referendum if a proposed amendment by Barry makes it into the legislation. Barry wants to let the District go the way of Uruguay and allow residents to grow a small number of marijuana plants in their homes.
If residents have their own, Barry said, it could “cut out a lot of the economics” of illegal street sales of the drug.
“My motivation is very simple. We have hundreds of black men, black boys, being locked up for simple possession, given a criminal record,” Barry said. “In my community, I talk to somebody almost every day who says: ‘Somebody just got arrested for having a bag of weed. Come on, man — What’s that all about?’ ”
Also during the summer, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier urged a “robust discussion” of the proposal and cautioned against using the ACLU study to justify decriminalization.
“Some of the information being used as an argument for decriminalization is flawed,” she said in a statement. “Marijuana users are simply not being targeted in the manner suggested.” Lanier did not testify for Gray’s administration on Thursday.
That was left to the office of the attorney general, which among other things asked Wells to ensure that marijuana possession in school zones is still considered a crime. Wells said he agreed with that idea for adults but not for children, who under the bill would have their drugs confiscated and their parents called.