Decriminalization Takes Effect, Uneasily, in D.C.

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Marijuana decriminalization has arrived in Washington, D.C. And with it come a host of questions: How will the law operate, how will cops enforce it, and how will Congress ultimately deal with the new policy?

U.S. CapitolThe District Council voted earlier this year to remove criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of cannabis. Instead, violators will be fined $25, similar to a ticket for littering.

The change took effect at midnight July 17, a Thursday. Though pot isn’t legal (yet), smoking it has become a much safer proposition for people in the District.

Up until that point, possessing small amounts of pot could land residents in jail and leave them with heavy criminal fines. Now, cops write a simple ticket.

Cops: Law Is Too Confusing

Not everyone is pleased with the new situation. Many cops feel the new policy lacks structure, leaving them to make legal decisions in the field with little guidance. For example, they say, the new law could make it harder to conduct vehicle searches in cases where motorists are suspected of impaired driving.

According to new orders from the police department, decriminalization policy means police can no longer take action simply because they smell marijuana. Smell evidence has long been used to justify searches, but that will no longer be the case. Now, cops will need evidence a suspect has more than an ounce on him.

There’s an exception for traffic stops, however, if police are “investigating whether a person is operating or in physical control of a vehicle” while impaired. Then, the scent of pot may be enough to warrant a search.

The problem, police officials say, is that such situations are hard to distinguish, and cops are likely to treat everything the same by always ignoring marijuana smells. That would make it harder to catch impaired drivers, said Delroy Burton, chairman of the District’s police union.

“This is not a simple issue,” Burton said. “It’s about enforcement and decriminalization and where you draw the line of what officers can do and cannot do. Our officers are going to have to go out there and enforce a convoluted mess.”

Federal Interference Looms Over Decriminalizaiton

Police confusion isn’t the only uncertainty hanging over decriminalization. Late last month the U.S. House passed a budget amendment that would deny funding for cannabis decriminalization policies, effectively killing them.

weed plantThe bill still needs the approval of the Senate and the president, both highly unlikely. Democrats control the Senate, and they probably won’t do anything that would so aggravate their supporters in heavily Democratic D.C.

The same goes for President Obama. He said earlier this month that he opposes the budget amendment. Without his signature, it almost certainly wouldn’t become law, since neither the House nor the Senate has enough votes to override a presidential veto.

Any final decision from the federal government could take months, and will probably be resolved during budget negotiations between the two houses of Congress.

Even assuming decriminalization overcomes these hurdles, there are still holes in the law. Federal law enforcement, for example, can still arrest people who bring pot to the Mall, the Capitol, or other federal property – of which there is a lot in Washington.

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