Yesterday afternoon, D.C. Council voted 10-1-1 to pass a bill decriminalizing marijuana possession in the District. The bill, engineered by Ward 6 councilmember Tommy Wells, aims to alter the enforcement of marijuana laws in the city, which have led to a disproportionate number of arrests for African-American males.
"In D.C., there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana; 90 percent are African American," Ward told the Washington Post. "One drug charge can change a life forever. Our action . . . does not repeal all negative impacts caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves us in the right direction."
As the Post notes, the bill will partially decriminalize marijuana, resulting in civil fines for possession rather than jail time. Though many are celebrating the bill as a victory, it has also further complicated marijuana arrests in D.C., as local and federal jurisdictions overlap. For example, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Park Police told the Post that it's unlikely the agency will align with the city's bill:
Last year, the U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over the [National] Mall and nearly every park and traffic circle, recorded 501 “incidents” involving marijuana. The agency has not formed a response to the D.C. measure, but a Park Police spokeswoman said there is “nothing to suggest” it would follow the city’s lead.
There's sure to be confusion, so here are a few facts about the new measure that will hopefully make everything a little less cloudy. For example, decriminalization absolutely does not mean that marijuana is legal in D.C. now:
Someone could be arrested under federal law, for instance, for possession on the Mall.
Elsewhere in the city, the penalty for possession of up to an ounce would drop to a fine of $25 — smaller than in any state except Alaska. Consumption in private residences would draw the same fine, unless in public housing, which is governed by federal law. The bill would equate smoking marijuana in public to toting an open can of beer; a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $500 and up to six months in jail, down from a potential $1,000 fine and one-year jail sentence.
According to the Washington City Paper, police will still take both your weed and your vaporizer if they're visible:
Whether or not it's less than an ounce, police will take your marijuana if it's "visible," according to the bill...If [a vaporizer] is "visible," that's gone, too.
While having or smoking marijuana in the privacy of a home will no longer be a criminal offense, public smoking is still prohibited:
Since the bill forbids smoking in public, pot smokers are limited to their own property or property to which they're invited.
So what about selling it?
Unluckily for the people actually distributing marijuana, selling the drug is still a crime in the District. That could change, though, if activists manage to put an initiative legalizing marijuana on the ballot in November.
Furthermore, how the law is enforced could depend largely on who's living in the White House at the time:
Implementing and enforcing the measure promises to be an ongoing challenge. How the law is interpreted by federal agents in the city could depend largely on who is president.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department has not sought a confrontation with states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana. But more than two dozen federal law enforcement agencies operate in the District, and some routinely make traffic stops and arrests.
So what's next? The bill will go to Mayor Vince Gray, who's expected to sign it. From there, it will go to Congress for a 60-day review period. The Post adds that Congress has only overturned four city laws in the past 40 years.
Here's the takeaway: Nas' vision of "smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin'" remains a utopian fantasy in the District for the moment, but the penalties won't be as harsh. All eyes will now shift to the initiative for full legalization that will be on the ballot this November.
Overall, this decision deserves more of a respectful clap than a standing ovation, though the recognition of and commitment to addressing a matter that's plagued young black men in D.C. is certainly worthy of some applause.
Written by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)