Marijuana prohibition remains a sacred cow to the majority of the 435 Congressional lawmakers who inhabit the halls of the nation’s Capitol. But to the majority of residents who call the nation’s capital their home, pot prohibition is a policy that needs to be put out to pasture. According to the findings of a Washington Post poll released on Wednesday, Washingtonians support legalizing the adult consumption of cannabis by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
Sixty-three percent of District residents favor “legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use” the poll reported -- a percentage that is well higher than the national average. And that support is rising. The Washington Post reported, “Washingtonians of every age, race and ethnicity -- black and white, teenage and elderly -- registered double-digit increases in support for legalization.”
But even among the minority of residents who don’t endorse legalizing cannabis outright, few support arresting and jailing pot offenders. According to the survey, of the 34 percent of respondents who oppose legalization, nearly half (16 percent of this total) support reduced penalties for pot offenses.
They will likely get their wish imminently. Also on Wednesday, members of the DC Committee on Public Safety voted unanimously in favor of legislation decriminalizing DC’s marijuana possession penalties. As approved by the Committee, B20-0409: The Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013 reduces marijuana possession penalties from a criminal misdemeanor (punishable by up to 6 months incarceration and a maximum fine of $1,000) to a non-arrestable civil infraction (punishable by a $25 fine for private possession and a $100 fine for possession in public) -- a classification that does not carry with it a criminal record.
The full DC Council is expected to vote on -- and pass -- the measure within the next few weeks. If they do so, the question will then be whether or not members of Congress decide to quash the party. Since the District is not a state, any legislation approved by the DC City Council may be overridden by a Congressional vote, if a majority of lawmakers choose to act.
However, with Congress presently looking the other way at the District’s locally licensed medical pot dispensaries, it is unlikely that federal lawmakers will make much of a fuss about the imposition of fine-only penalties for small-time pot offenders. And while the bill before Council members falls well short of legalization, it remains possible that DC residents will have an opportunity to directly decide the issue sooner rather than later. On Friday, local activists filed an initiative with the DC Board of Elections that seeks to allow District residents to possess and cultivate personal use amounts of cannabis without penalty. Their goal is to place the measure before voters this November.
Either way, relief for DC tokers cannot come soon enough. A 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland reported that Washington DC possesses the highest percentage of marijuana possession arrests per capita in the nation. A separate report published last year by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs further reported that DC police make these arrests in predominantly African American neighborhoods, but that pot arrests rarely take place in neighboring white areas.
Paul Armentano is deputy director of NORML.