Most marijuana busts in the District of Columbia will happen without handcuffs or a paddy wagon beginning Thursday, when the city implements one of the country’s most lenient decriminalization laws.
People nabbed by District police with up to 1 ounce of marijuana will be slapped on the wrist with a $25 civil fine, rather than arrested and confronted with a possible $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
Officers have the option of merely giving a warning and residents won’t be required to show an ID to police writing a citation.
Police will continue to confiscate the drug and can arrest people who refuse to provide their actual name and address, but police cannot use the odor of marijuana as an excuse to search for it.
The new fine for small-time pot possession is lower than the $75 penalty for littering and the $50 punishment for drivers who park too close to city fire hydrants.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and the U.S. Park Police and other federal agencies intend to file federal charges against people they catch with small amounts of marijuana. Those penalties include a possible $1,000 fine and one year in jail for first offenses.
The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority Police, a regional force that monitors the Metro mass transit system, will implement the decriminalization law within city limits, Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye tells U.S. News.
District police make the vast majority of marijuana arrests and Gwendolyn Crump, spokeswoman for the city’s Metropolitan Police Department, tells U.S. News officers won’t be allowed to use federal law at their discretion to arrest people for possession of less than 1 ounce.
“MPD will enforce District law, not federal law,” Crump says.
The MPD “has developed and implemented training for all members,” Crump says. “As of midnight, Wednesday night, no member can make or approve an arrest for marijuana possession without having first taken this training.”
Smoking marijuana in public will remain a jailable offense under District law.
The D.C. Council voted 10-1 in March to approve the decriminalization law. It was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray and transmitted to Congress for a mandatory 60-day review period.
No member of Congress proposed a resolution of disapproval that would block the law, meaning it will take effect.
The District of Columbia had a higher per capita arrest rate for marijuana possession than any of the 50 states in 2010, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report. More than 90 percent of arrestees that year were black. The racial enforcement disparity was one of the primary reasons cited by city politicians who support reducing penalties.
“I think we’re going to see a real positive change in the District of Columbia,” Councilman David Grosso, a political independent, tells U.S. News. “We know that every single touch with the criminal justice system, unfortunately, has a negative impact on our residents’ lives.”
Grosso was arrested for marijuana possession in Florida before he attended college. “Unlike many people in the city, it had a very small impact on me – I came from a middle class, white family,” he says.
He recalls growing up as a teenager near a drug-dealing hot spot in the District, and says his race seemed to immunize him from police suspicion.
“Being my white self, I’d walk by there usually with something in my pocket that shouldn’t have been there and nobody once asked me to get against the wall,” he says. “It was as if I was invisible to the police.”
District residents are likely to see an initiative on November ballots on outright legalization of marijuana. Polls suggest there’s solid majority support. Residents don’t have direct lawmaking authority and the city government would need to implement the will of the voters.
Grosso introduced a legalization bill last year and expects members of the D.C. Council to pass legislation establishing a legal, regulated recreational marijuana market if and when voters endorse doing so.
One hiccup for District marijuana reformers comes from Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who in June successfully attached an amendment to a spending bill that would ban the District from implementing laws that decriminalize or legalize marijuana.