Lawmakers in the District of Columbia made another significant stride toward the decriminalization of marijuana last Wednesday when the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety of the D.C. Council voted in favor of the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Act of 2014. If passed by the rest of the Council, the bill would eliminate jail time as a punishment for possession of marijuana and instead impose a $25 fine.
Mayoral candidate and Public Safety Chair Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), author of the bill, led his committee in unanimous support of the decriminalization measure. Mayor Vincent Gray has spoken out in support of decriminalization, though he has not expressed support for legalization. The D.C. Cannabis Campaign, however, has already proposed a ballot initiative, which, if passed, would legalize the possession of two ounces and three plants by residents age 21 and older. D.C. Council member David P. Grosso (I-At Large) has supported this initiative with his own bill in favor of the legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, President Obama expressed new, public views on marijuana. While marijuana use is not “something he encourages” and is a “bad idea, a waste of time, [and] not very healthy,” he said that the drug is not more dangerous than alcohol. The president’s statements reflect a common sentiment among Americans, who have taken to the polls in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana in those states. And it’s not just younger people behind the push—in an interview with The Daily Beast, a Colorado dispensary owner revealed at least 60 percent of his clientele is above the age of 30.
The continued criminalization of marijuana and the disproportionately harsh penalties these laws entail unfairly target minorities like African Americans. In particular, these policies hurt poorer Americans who cannot afford the legal resources to save them—and their permanent records—from the severe penalties.
In fact, D.C. leads the country in marijuana arrests per capita, and, though just over half of the District population is black, African-Americans comprise 91 percent of all marijuana arrests. The number of whites arrested for marijuana has remained relatively stable between 2001 and 2010, but the number of blacks arrested jumped by nearly 1,500. Yet, the rate at which people use the substance is nearly equal—14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reportedly use marijuana.
If successful, weed decriminalization will help rectify the racial bias within D.C. marijuana laws. And, as Obama remarked, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”