After Colorado and Washington State legalized marijuana for recreational use, other states and cities around the country began taking a fresh look at their own marijuana laws. Some are bowing to political pressure to fully legalize marijuana, which recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support.
Others, like Washington, D.C., are leaning more toward only decriminalizing the drug. If it does, the city would join 17 states with similar laws.
The Washington, D.C. city council is moving forward with a bill to decriminalize marijuana. The bill would change the penalty for possession from a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail, to a simple $25 fine. But it would leave criminal penalties for smoking in public.
Councilmember David Grosso, a supporter of the bill, said, “Putting people in jail is no longer the solution to this problem. I think the war on drugs has really failed. And what we need to do is to find a way to heal our communities from that and to make sure that people are no longer being thrown in jail for non-violent offenses.”
Councilmember Yvette Alexander was the lone dissenter in a preliminary vote. She is concerned the bill would make Washington a top drug market.
“It will increase more attraction to this area for the sale of drugs. Because the purchase of drugs has little to no repercussion,” she said.
Supporters argue decriminalization will cut law enforcement costs and address racial disparities recently outlined in a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for American civil rights.
The report found people of color are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Washington, even though usage rates are often higher in certain white communities.
Washington attorney Paul Zuckerberg has represented marijuana defendants for 28 years.
“We are arresting 6,000 people a year for simple marijuana possession," he said. "D.C. leads the nation in marijuana arrests per capita. And we also lead the nation in racially-biased arrests.”
Drug policy reform
Decriminalization advocates say racial disparities in arrests are a nationwide problem and threaten a generation of black Americans with the stigma of criminal records.
“Besides the arrests there is the fact that they have the scarlet letter [permanent stigma]," said Bill Piper, who is with the Drug Policy Alliance which calls for drug policy reform. "And it is with them for the rest of their lives, which makes it hard for them to get jobs, makes it hard for them to get housing.”
City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson voted for the decriminalization bill, but he thinks the racial disparities argument is the wrong reason to change the law.
“I think that is a false argument. To be sure, if there are discriminatory practices in policing, we should vigorously investigate and put an end to that," he said. "But that is not the basis of whether something should be a crime or not. And, in fact, most members of the council don’t support criminalizing drug use.”
The bill faces another city council vote before it goes before Mayor Vincent Gray. Then, it must be approved by the U.S. Congress which oversees laws in Washington, D.C.