The D.C. Council has approved a watered-down marijuana decriminalization bill that maintains criminal penalties for smoking in public.
The bill approved in an initial vote Tuesday would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, and it would not be a crime to smoke on one's own property. But the council also approved an amendment that would treat smoking in public the same as possession of an open container of alcohol, which is a low-level criminal offense.
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray and Police Chief Cathy Lanier were among those concerned about giving the green light to public pot smoking. They said $100 civil fines for public smoking would essentially be unenforceable.
The bill's sponsor, Councilmember Tommy Wells, was the only one to vote against the change.
Statement from D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells:
(Washington D.C.) - Today the District of Columbia Council took the first of two votes on Councilmember Tommy Wells' legislation to decriminalize marijuana, and it passed 11 to one. The marijuana decriminalization bill will face a second and final reading and vote before the entire Council as early as February 18th.
"The evidence of racial disparities in DC arrests for marijuana is undeniable and the socioeconomic impacts on African American residents are indisputable," said Tommy Wells. "I am proud that we have taken this step, with support from so many on the DC Council, to decriminalize marijuana."
While the legislation passed a major hurdle today, amendments were introduced that could perpetuate the socioeconomic and racial injustices being perpetrated under the guise of marijuana criminalization.
Wells added, "I am extremely disappointed that my colleagues, Mayor Gray and Chief Lanier would choose to continue the pattern of injustice by supporting these amendments. I am not advocating for the use of marijuana in public or private, but an end to the criminalization and disenfranchisement of majoritively African American DC residents. We need to end the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests that keep our residents from job, higher education and housing opportunities. I will continue working with my colleagues in advance of our next vote to get this bill right."
On July 10, 2013, Councilmember Tommy Wells introduced the Simple Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana Decriminalization Act of 2013 with Councilmember Marion Barry and co-introducers and sponsors McDuffie, Evans, Bonds, Grosso, Graham, Cheh, Catania, and Mendelson.
According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the District of Columbia leads the United States in marijuana arrests. D.C. police made 846 such arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010. Nationally that number was 256 per 100,000. The same ACLU report found that DC was among the top ten jurisdictions in the country for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
According to another recent report, written by the Washington Lawyers Committee, 91% of all drug arrests in DC were of Black people. In 2010 there were 40,353 arrests of Black adults; a number equivalent to 17% of the Black adult population of the District; in contrast, in that same year 4866 arrests of white adults, a number equivalent to 2% of the white adult population in the District. Despite nearly equal populations of Black and white residents in DC, 83% of all arrests were of Black people. - Ben Nuckols - AP