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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

DC Takes Another Step Toward Marijuana Possession Decriminalization

By: Sean Farrelly

As reported by the Washington Post and numerous other media outlets, the D.C. City Council voted 11-1 to decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  In lieu of the current criminal penalties of 180 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine for possessing small amounts of marijuana, possession would be a civil infraction carrying a fine-only punishment, similar to a speeding or parking ticket.

If the legislation is enacted, D.C. would follow the lead of 15 other U.S. states that have already decriminalized possession of marijuana.  Although possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the Department of Justice has not taken any action to enforce federal law in those states that have decriminalized possession through state legislation.

One of the driving forces behind the legislation is the disproportionate affect marijuana laws have on African Americans.  According to a study cited by the Washington Post, African Americans account for nine out of ten arrests for simple drug possession in the District even though less than half of the population of D.C. is African American.

Although some view the 11-1 vote as a major victory for marijuana advocates, there were some significant setbacks in the form of last-minute legislation amendments.  Most notably, although possessing marijuana will be decriminalized, smoking marijuana in public will still be a crime, punishable by 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.  Further, if a District law enforcement officer smells the odor of marijuana coming from an individual’s person the officer may still have grounds to search the person without a search warrant.  These measures may significantly scale back the affect the legislation was intended to have on racial disparity.

Dan Riffle, a director with the Marijuana Policy Project, said the District’s law will leave a “gray area” in which police could allege seeing the light of a joint or a cloud of marijuana smoke in order to stop and question or search anyone.  “These last-minute amendments will simply expand stop-and-frisk policies in the District and will do nothing to fight the horrible racial disparity in marijuana enforcement.”

The legislation will have no effect on the penalties for the crimes of distribution of marijuana, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and possession of marijuana over one ounce.  Those crimes will still range from misdemeanors to felonies with maximum penalties starting at 180 days in jail and/or $1,000 fines.

The timing of the vote is also notable in light of the fact that President Obama stated just a few weeks ago that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol.  Although the D.C. Council has been considering the decriminalization of marijuana for quite some time, the President’s words do nothing to diminish the validity of the legislation and the D.C. Council may have decided to piggyback on the president’s words in an effort to gain additional public support for the decriminalization measure.

From the perspective of a Washington, DC criminal defense lawyer, although this legislation is a significant step in the right direction, the last-minute amendments weaken the overall affect the legislation will have on police conduct and racial disparity in enforcement.  When dealing with issues concerning social progress, it is often a slow and frustrating process.  Even though this legislation is not the giant leap forward many had hoped it would be, it is certainly an important step in the right direction and its passage would be decidedly preferable to the status quo.

If you or someone you know has been arrested for drug possession or drug distribution in the District of Columbia, please contact Farrelly PC for a full and free consultation.  It is very important that you retain competent and experienced counsel to fight for your rights.


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