DC Council Takes Up Marijuana Legalization
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 23, 2013 13:09
In response to a severe racial discrepancy among those arrested for marijuana-related offenses, D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced a bill Tuesday that would legalize recreational usage of marijuana in the District.
If passed, the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act would permit people over the age of 21 to possess and use up to two ounces of marijuana, which could be purchased from licensed distributors. All marijuana sales would carry a 10 percent excise tax, the proceeds of which would go toward substance-abuse prevention programs.
An American Civil Liberties Union study released in June showed that D.C. has a higher marijuana-related arrest rate per capita than any state in the country; 846 out of 100,000 D.C. residents were arrested for marijuana-related arrests in 2010, and the Metropolitan Police Department has reported a steady rise in marijuana-related arrests from 2009 to 2013. A 2010 National Drug Use survey found that approximately 15 percent of both black and white populations in the United States use marijuana, but the ACLU found that black residents are 8.05 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts.
Medical marijuana is already legalized in the District. Additionally, the Department of Justice announced Aug. 29 that it would not interfere with decriminalization or legalization laws proposed at the state and local level, provided that businesses are tightly regulated.
Grosso’s efforts follow a bill introduced in July by Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and councilmember and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Wells and Barry plan to re-introduce the bill this fall and are holding a public hearing in early October.
The decriminalization bill, which has six co-sponsors, would reduce the punishment for possession of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil penalty. Currently, the punishment for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana is six months in prison and a $1,000 fine; Wells and Barry’s bill would reduce the penalty to a $100 fine.
But while Grosso supports the decriminalization movement, he argued that it would not do enough to solve the racial component of marijuana-related arrests. He has also introduced another bill, the Marijuana Possession Act of 2013, which would seal the records of all people whose only criminal offense is possession of marijuana.
“The war on drugs has not worked,” Grosso said in a press release. “It has been a war on people of color. … I want to remove the opportunity for MPD to disproportionately arrest African Americans for non-violent drug offenses. This is a matter of justice.”
ALCU organizer Seema Sadanandan agreed and said that MPD officers target black residents by using use the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which leads to marijuana-related arrests.
“We hear a lot of issues where many people are confronted by police officers and stop-and-frisk tactics. This forces them to live in a hyper-vigilant state which creates a dangerous dynamic in the community,” Sadanandan said. “This essentially disenfranchises an entire section of the community from full enjoyment of many of their rights.”
Adam Eidinger, a pro-marijuana activist who used to run the Capitol Hemp stores — stores that sold clothing and accessories made from hemp — is seeking to propose a ballot referendum in favor of legalization. Eidinger previously proposed a decriminalization referendum in early 2013 but withdrew it early this month following several objections from D.C. Attorney General Irv Natahan. According to Eidinger, the objections were procedural, in that the referendum called for the appropriation of city money, but District lab prohibits referendums from doing so. Eidinger told The Washingtonian that he planned to submit a legalization referendum in time to get it on the 2014 general election ballot.
Even if the D.C. Council passes marijuana-related legislation, Congress has authority over D.C. laws — a power that it has exercised in the past. A 1998 referendum that approved medical marijuana was defeated on Capitol Hill.
Grosso, however, expressed confidence that Congress would not block the implementation of a council-approved bill. He said approximately 100 constituents have expressed their support, but an April Public Policy Polling survey found that 75 percent of District voters support the decriminalization of marijuana and more than 60 percent would support some sort of legalization initiative.
“The mood is turning, the tide is turning,” he told U.S. News & World Report.
Although Mayor Vincent Gray has not taken a position on decriminalization, a spokesperson in the mayor’s office told The Hoya that Gray welcomes the discussion of the issue.