Yesterday was a landmark day for the decriminalization of marijuana.
By a vote of 10 to 1, the DC Council passed a bill partially decriminalizing marijuana. The new bill lessens the penalties for public and private consumption of marijuana and decriminalizes the possession of small quantities of the drug.
Under the new bill, possession of an ounce or less (1 ounce = 60 joints) of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, which was accompanied by a penalty of 6 months in jail or a $1,000 fine. Possession of an ounce or less is now a civil offense accompanied by a $25 fine. Also, while public consumption of marijuana is still a misdemeanor offense, the penalty for smoking in public has been lowered from a $1,000 fine or 6 months in jail to a $500 fine or 60 days in jail. It is also worth noting that under the new bill, the smell of marijuana will no longer constitute sufficient cause for a police officer to stop and search an individual.
The decriminalization of marijuana has partially been framed as a civil rights issue in Washington DC, a city whose African-American population exceeds 50%. Many proponents of the new bill argued that the previous marijuana laws in DC encouraged racial disparities. According to Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), “In DC there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana and 90% of them are African-American.” Many of the African-American councilmembers were extremely supportive of the bill. Not surprisingly, Councilman Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was one of them. Mayor Vincent Gray is expected to sign the bill. Once signed, the bill must go to Congress for 60 days before it becomes law.
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Jaia Thomas is a Los Angeles based sports and entertainment attorney. For more information: www.jathomaslaw.com or @jaiathomaslaw.