DC Decriminalizes Weed More Than A Decade After Legalizing Medical Marijuana

The law removes criminal penalties for those in possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and replaces them with a $25 civil fine, much like a parking ticket.
By @katierucke |
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    Although medical marijuana has been legalized in Washington, D.C. since 1998, the drug had  never been decriminalized in our nation’s capital until Tuesday, when the D.C. Council passed a measure that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

    In other words, before Tuesday, any possession of marijuana was punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. But now, under the Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013, the legislation removes criminal penalties for those 18 years of age and older who are in possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and replaces them with a $25 civil fine, much like a parking ticket.

    People smoking in public would be fined $100, and minors would have a letter sent to their parents. Medical marijuana patients would continue to be exempted.

    For many advocacy groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, decriminalization it is an important part of the legalization process, since about 60,000 individuals are serving time behind bars for marijuana-related offenses in the U.S. at a cost of about $1.2 billion per year to taxpayers. About 90 percent of these arrests are for simple marijuana possession offenses.

    The state of California saved nearly $1 billion dollars from 1976 to 1985 by decriminalizing the personal possession of one ounce of marijuana, and New Mexico’s 2001 state-commissioned Drug Policy Advisory Group found that marijuana decriminalization “will result in greater availability of resources to respond to more serious crimes without any increased risks to public safety.”

    Though the passage of the D.C. measure was largely applauded, the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization, is concerned that the council decided to add amendments to the bill that in effect, weakened the decriminalization efforts, such as criminalizing public use, making smoking marijuana in public a misdemeanor as opposed to a civil violation, and allowing police to search a vehicle if they smell marijuana.

    At-large, D.C. Council member David Grosso has introduced legislation that would tax and regulate marijuana similar to alcohol, which MPP says may address some of the group’s concerns.

    “As a former prosecuting attorney, I call this a step forward for the cause of promoting public safety,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the MPP. “Arresting and prosecuting adults for possessing a less harmful substance than alcohol is a waste of law enforcement and court resources. Police and prosecutors should focus their time and attention on addressing actual threats to public safety.

    “We applaud the council for taking this step toward a more sensible marijuana policy, but there is still work to be done. These last-minute amendments will simply expand stop-and-frisk policies in the District and will do nothing to fight the horrible racial disparities in marijuana enforcement.

    “We need to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol, and take it out of the hands of criminals and drug cartels. Marijuana should be sold by legitimate businesses in licensed, regulated stores, not by criminals on our street corners. The sooner the council takes up Council member Grosso’s bill, the better.”

    As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, due to the strictness of Washington, D.C.’s marijuana laws, the district’s medical marijuana program has largely suffered, and the area’s three dispensaries are reporting that they are losing money.

    Based on the language of D.C.’s medical marijuana legislation, patients can only get a medical marijuana prescription from a doctor they have an ongoing relationship with, and only if they suffer from one of four conditions: HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, cancer or severe muscle spasms, such as those caused by multiple sclerosis.

    In order to even step inside a D.C. -based dispensary, a patient has to register with the health department, make an appointment and show a district-issued ID card before passing through security.

    Whether this decriminalization bill will change that remains to be seen.


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