The movement to legalize marijuana in the nation’s capital began with a racial divide in arrests: By one count, African Americans accounted for 9 out of 10 arrests for simple drug possession, sending thousands of young men each year into the criminal-justice system.
Fast-forward three years: D.C. lawmakers have eliminated criminal penalties for pot. D.C. voters have legalized marijuana possession. And drug arrests involving the drug have plummeted — from thousands annually to hundreds.
But in that shrunken universe of arrests, a stark racial divide remains, according to new arrest data.
One of the most common crimes involving marijuana in the District is smoking it in public. Doing so is a misdemeanor on par with getting caught with an open container of alcohol and can cost an offender $500 and 90 days in jail.
Out of 128 arrests last year for smoking pot in public, 108 were of black people, according to arrest data that the D.C. police department furnished to the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for marijuana legalization.
The alliance obtained the arrest data under the District’s Freedom of Information Act and shared it with The Washington Post as the D.C. Council on Tuesday is set to reconsider whether to permanently ban pot clubs, where residents and visitors to the nation’s capital might smoke without fear of arrest.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) placed the measure on the agenda despite a compromise that the council worked out in February to form a task force to study whether and how it could proceed with sanctioning a limited number of private pot clubs in the city.
That accord brought together allies of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had sought to continue a complete ban on pot clubs, and a growing contingent of council members who had threatened to override the mayor and approve a plan to license clubs, saying it better reflected what voters intended when they legalized marijuana at the polls.
The compromise aligned the District with a vanguard of mostly Western cities, including Denver, where lawmakers are wrestling with how to accommodate fast-shifting public sentiment that’s in favor of greater social pot use. That question has become the next frontier in jurisdictions where voters have legalized possession.
And with the District’s history of racial disparities in drug arrests, advocates for clubs say the issue is especially important in the nation’s capital. They argue that clubs would give low-income residents, who are barred from smoking at home if they live in federal public-housing complexes, a place to smoke that is not outdoors and therefore carries greater risk of arrest.
Mendelson voted for the compromise but now says he sees no harm in making the ban permanent because the District’s hands would be tied from actually opening any clubs.
His position amounts to a new interpretation of restrictions that Congress placed on the city. Although they couldn’t stop the District from legalizing marijuana, conservative House Republicans barred the District from spending any local tax revenue to write or enforce regulations to further loosen pot laws, including allowing for the sale or taxation of the drug.
In an email to the Drug Policy Alliance, an aide to Mendelson said Monday that the council chairman does not believe that passing the ban would foreclose on the idea of the city’s opening of pot clubs in the future, presumably if Congress drops its restrictions.
He and a spokesman for Bowser also said they think the task force can continue to meet to discuss the topic, even if the permanent ban is passed.
But marijuana groups and some D.C. Council members disagree and say the legality of the task force would be undermined by the new vote. More importantly, they say, there is no reason for the District to tie its own hands and pass a restriction that it could not later roll back at will because of the congressional restriction.
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said that he remains opposed to a permanent ban and that the work of the task force must be protected.
Kaitlyn Boecker, a spokeswoman for the Drug Policy Alliance, said it was baffling why any member of the council “would support the ban after just voting for the compromise.”
“We struggle to see how passing a permanent ban on social consumption venues does not invalidate the task force,” she said. “Moving a bill that permanently bans venues, before receiving any input from the task force, means the chairman places no value in their analysis or recommendations — I’m not sure this could be characterized in any other way than invalidating their work.”