The D.C. Council gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that would reduce the penalty for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana to a $25 fine – half the penalty for parking next to a fire hydrant.
The lopsided 10-1 vote wasn’t a surprise, as the council gave preliminary approval for the bill Feb. 4. Mayor Vincent Gray supports the legislation, but it must survive a 60-day congressional review period before becoming law.
Yvette Alexander was the only council member voting against the bill. During last month’s hearing, she joked about trying marijuana herself and suggested her colleagues might be interested in hosting “a smoke-in with the council.”
“The federal law does not recognize marijuana as less than a crime and we're in the nation's capital,” she protested.
Small-scale marijuana possession currently is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Police still would confiscate the drug if the decriminalization bill becomes law, but the offense would not be part of a person's criminal record.
Councilman Vincent Orange voted “present” Tuesday after previously voting in favor of the measure. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, a current council member and sponsor of the bill, missed both votes.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Councilman Tommy Wells, thanked Barry for helping lead the effort in a Tuesday tweet. He also retweeted a photo of himself smiling with Councilman David Grosso, who has proposed legislation to legalize and tax marijuana.
– John Nelson (@jrnelsonphoto) March 4, 2014
The decriminalization bill would not eliminate jail time for smoking marijuana in public. A successful amendment offered in February by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and backed by Gray removed a provision to reduce public smoking penalties to a $100 fine.
The bill would, however, lower the penalty for public smoking from a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail to a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail.
During the February council debate, Wells expressed concern that Mendelson’s amendment would allow many marijuana arrests to continue and possibly ensnare residents who smoke on their porches.
Although Congress has the power to block D.C. laws – and did so for more than a decade after residents voted in 1998 to legalize medical marijuana – it has lately been reluctant to flex that power. The Republican-led House of Representatives, for example, made no attempt to reverse D.C.’s March 2010 legalization of same-sex marriage after the GOP regained control of the chamber in January 2011.
D.C. Cannabis Campaign coordinator Adam Eidinger, who is working to get a legalization initiative on city ballots in November, says he expects the bill’s triumph to boost the prospects for legal, taxed pot.
“People are asking for that – they want marijuana to be treated like alcohol and the decrim bill doesn’t do that,” Eidinger tells U.S. News. “You don’t have people coming into your house, giving you a ticket and stealing your alcohol … but that’s the kind of law we have now.”
Eidinger’s group is currently waiting to hear if the D.C. Board of Elections will approve its proposed legalization initiative. The D.C. Office of the Attorney General objected during a recent hearing, saying legalization should not be on the ballot because it would conflict with federal public housing rules – an argument Eidinger finds irrelevant.
The pro-pot campaigners are prepared to sue if the elections board rejects their initiative. If the board gives the go-ahead, campaigners would need to collect the required petition signatures to score ballot access. If voters embrace legalization, the council would need to implement residents’ wishes.
“Passing it on the ballot this November will guarantee in 2015 that we have legalization pass the city council,” Eidinger says. The decriminalization bill will make it even more apparent that non-black market pot options are necessary, he says, echoing Grosso, who told U.S. News in September there would be "an increase in demand with decriminalization, but there isn't going to be anywhere safe for people to go purchase marijuana."
Polls suggest city residents favor legalizing marijuana by a wide margin. A Washington Post poll released Jan. 15 found 63 percent support for legalizing the drug for personal use. An April 2013 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found 63 percent support for regulating pot like alcohol.
D.C. police arrested 5,115 people for marijuana possession in 2010, according to data reported in June by the American Civil Liberties Union. Nearly 91 percent of those arrested were black, according to the ACLU.
Colorado and Washington are currently the only states that allow recreational marijuana use by adults over age 21. Colorado opened recreational marijuana stores Jan. 1, and state-licensed stores will open in Washington later this year.
The district's legislation is part of a nationwide trend toward liberalizing marijuana laws. The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted Jan. 15 to legalize and regulate marijuana, but the bill is unlikely to become law this year. Alaska residents will vote on legalization Aug. 19, possibly followed by residents of Arizona, California and Oregon in November. Seventeen states have removed or reduced penalties for nonmedical marijuana possession.