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Washington DC considers decriminalizing marijuana

Published time: January 15, 2014 16:42
Reuters / Nick Adams

Reuters / Nick Adams

Smoking pot in Washington, DC, is set to become a lot less risky as the City Council prepares to vote on a measure that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

A council panel is expected to mark up a bill that would classify the possession of less than an ounce of pot as a civil infraction instead of a criminal one, according to Reuters. Those caught with such small amounts would be subject to fines of as little as $25, making the violation equivalent to that of receiving a traffic ticket.

Currently, possessing any marijuana in Washington, DC, is a misdemeanor offense that could result in up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"We have to take action to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana and reform our criminal justice system," Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, told Reuters. His committee will consider making changes to the bill, which he believes will help cut the city’s police and legal expenses.

With nine of 13 council members – including DC Mayor Vincent Gray – on record supporting the measure, chances are good the proposal will pass. If so, Washington, DC, will follow the lead of 15 other states that have also decriminalized pot possession.

Perhaps even more importantly than cutting costs, supporters of the bill have been motivated by the chance to reform a law enforcement system that’s arresting far more people for pot possession than in any other state in the country. As RT reported last year, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that the nation’s capitol arrested 846 people per 100,000 residents in 2010 for pot possession, far more than the national average of 256 arrests.

In addition, not only were African Americans eight times more likely to be detained for possession than whites that year, but they also made up an astonishing 91 percent of all marijuana arrests.

"We have hundreds of young black men, black boys, being locked up, for simple possession of a couple bags of marijuana," said Democratic Councilmember, and a sponsor of the new bill, Marion Barry to USA Today back in November. "We don't want to be proud of the wrong kind of thing here. We need to stop that kind of injustice from happening."

Still, not everyone in DC supports the measure, especially those who see current law as a way to discourage marijuana use.

"The message is going to be sent that it's really not that bad of a choice of drug," Bernard Howard, a local DC pastor, said to USA Today. "I think it's very detrimental to the psychological development and social development of young people that are using marijuana, and especially our young black men.”

Even if the city passes the bill, pot advocates aren’t likely to end their efforts there. Some groups, like DC Marijuana Justice, are hoping to use passage as a springboard towards total legalization. It’s possible a the issue could be put up to a vote during this year’s midterm elections, though there’s been no decision on the matter just yet.

Already, Colorado and Washington state have legalized the recreational use of marijuana via ballot initiatives, with other states, like Alaska and California, weighing similar proposals.

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