Residents of Washington, DC who are found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana will no longer be charged with a crime after the city council voted Tuesday to reduce the penalty to a small fine.
The members voted 10-1 to drop possession of an ounce or less of cannabis to a civil fine of $25. The council did preserve a law making it illegal to smoke in public, although the maximum penalty for that infraction has been reduced from up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine to up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. That penalty is the same one facing residents who are stopped in public with an open can of alcohol.
The measure is now in the hands of DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who reportedly plans to authorize the legislation. It will then make its way to Congress. The US Congress has veto authority over laws proposed in the District of Colombia but has only done so in three instances since 1979.
“We are taking a significant step to correct the continuing social injustice cause by a failed war on drugs,” Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the lead author of the legislation, told The Washington Post.
If the bill becomes a law, Washington, DC will join 17 states in the US that have enacted some form of decriminalization of marijuana.
Activists admitted that Tuesday’s passage is a step in the right direction, although many have said it does not go far enough. One refrain is that it will contribute to uncertainty in policing the District, with officers still required to arrest citizens if they see smoke, but unable to do so if they smell marijuana.
Others say the bill does not correct what has become one of the most problematic results of the war on drugs: the racial disparity. Data unveiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) indicated that while Caucasians and African Americans use marijuana at approximately the same rate, the latter demographic has been targeted by police more often.
“According to the ACLU’s original analysis, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States,” the civil liberties advocacy group announced. “Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were simply for having marijuana...Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”
The DC Board of Elections is currently reviewing a ballot initiative in which voters can call for full legalization as soon as November. A decision about whether to issue the initiative could come this week.
The official vote was 10-1-1, with Councilmember Yvette Alexander submitting the only “no” and Councilmember Vincent Orange voting “present.” Councilmember Marion Berry did not cast a vote after being hospitalized, according to AP.