Decriminalization – A Step Forward

Washington, D.C. has already legalized medical marijuana, despite the presence of federal law enforcement just a few miles from some of the dispensaries. Now, the city is getting ready to take another step in the direction of legal pot.

Washington DC
Washington, D.C. taking steps in the right direction.

Early in July, the District City Council said it would consider legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of weed. Currently, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

Council member Tommy Wells introduced legislation that would eliminate the criminal designation and reduce penalties to a $100 fine for possession of one ounce or less – the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Minors would be required to complete drug awareness education, and failure to finish it would result in a $200 fine and community service.

Wells’ legislation follows a major study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found troubling patterns in the District’s marijuana arrest records. The city arrests pot offenders at three times the national average, more than any state, and with huge racial disparities: African-Americans are arrested eight times more often than caucasians. Washington also spends more tax money on weed busts than any state.

D.C. is one of the most important battlegrounds in the American pot wars. The city legalized medical marijuana in 2011. The industry is currently getting its feet on the ground and should begin serving patients soon.

But the Justice Department and the FBI sit literally down the street from one dispensary and near others, and it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will react to medical pot in its own backyard. Decriminalization may raise the stakes further.

The council’s consideration of Wells’ proposal comes on a wave of strong public support. According to a recent poll, three quarters of D.C. voters favor decriminalization. More than 60 percent support full legalization, and more than half said they want to stop criminal penalties for all drug use.

If the legislation passes, Washington would join a growing number of states, now 17, that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Voters in Colorado and Washington states chose to legalize recreational weed in November, and their governments are currently setting up the regulatory frameworks for retail pot sales.

Rep. Tommy Wells
Council Member Tommy Wells

Additional states are considering medical use and decriminalization. Recent polls show increasing numbers of Americans support not only medical marijuana but full legalization. A study by the Pew Research Center in April revealed that 52 percent of Americans favor making pot legal. Other polls have found similar results.

All eyes are on the federal government to see how it reacts to the District’s steps. But with decriminalization, medical marijuana patients can at least breathe a bit easier.


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