D.C. council votes to ease marijuana laws

Posted at 11:32 AM, Mar 05, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-05 11:32:18-05

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The District of Columbia Council voted to significantly ease marijuana laws in the nation’s capital on Tuesday.

By a near unanimous vote, the council decided to lessen penalties for public and private consumption of marijuana and decriminalize the possession of small quantities of the drug.

While the move puts Washington, D.C.’s laws on marijuana among the most lenient in the nation, the bill’s proponents did not get everything they wanted. Originally, advocates had lobbied for a bill that would have significantly loosened laws for public consumption of marijuana and lessened penalties even more.

But when the council met last month to first consider the proposal, an amendment was added that brought the bill closer to its final form.

The approved legislation moves the possession of an ounce or less or marijuana from a criminal offense – which came with six months in jail or a $1,000 fine – to a civil offense that comes with a fine of $25.

And while the bill still makes public consumption of marijuana a misdemeanor offense, it lowers the penalty for smoking marijuana in public from a $1,000 fine or six months in jail to a $500 fine or 60 days in jail.

The text of the amendment compares the penalty for smoking marijuana in public to public consumption of alcohol.

Advocates for the proposal, like Councilmember Tommy Wells, have said the change was needed primarily because the laws were more often than not used to arrest African Americans in the district.

“I am proud that we are taking a big step to address and correct that injustice,” said Wells, who is running for mayor. “I am not an advocate for the use of marijuana in public or private, but an end to the criminalization and disenfranchisement of majoritively African American D.C. residents.”

The bill’s advocates have pointed to a 2013 study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee that found “nearly nine out of 10 of arrests for possession [of marijuana] involved African American arrestees.” The study argues that African Americans make up far less than 90% of marijuana consumption in D.C and therefore the district’s laws encourage “racial disparities that raise important questions of public policy and civil rights concerns.”

The bill, however, is rife with question marks and gray areas. For example, the smell of marijuana would not allow police officers to make an arrest, but the sight of marijuana smoke would.

The district’s law also places the nation’s capital at odds with federal statute. Congress has oversight of D.C. laws, but is not expected to weigh in.

Yvette Alexander was the only councilmember to vote against the measure, stating that she disapproved of the gap the law creates between possessing marijuana and selling and smoking the drug.

“If you sell marijuana or if you smoke marijuana, it is legal. If you possess it, it’s not,” Alexander said. “Why do you possess marijuana? Is it a lucky charm?”

Councilmember Vincent Orange voted present on the proposal and Concilmember Marion Barry, who has been sick and hospitalized recently, did not attend the vote.

Proponents of the law admit there are going to be some areas where questions may arise, but say Tuesday’s passage is, on the whole, a positive move by the council.

“This is a major step since we are the nation’s capital, and I am proud of that,” said Wells.

The bill now goes to the desk of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who in the past has voiced his support for loosening marijuana laws.