A DC Council committee approved a bill Wednesday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, just in time for a Washington Post poll stating that nearly two-thirds of District residents support going even further with full legalization.
The bill, led by Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells, would turn the possession of one ounce or less of pot from an arrest able offense to a civil violation subject to a $25 fine.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the bill could come before the full legislature as early as next week. But even though public opinion and pro-pot activists want the District to move toward full-scale legalization similar to Colorado, most DC officials want to take it slowly.
“I’m not there yet,” Mayor Vince Gray said in response to a question about legalization. “I support decriminalization. We have too many people in jail who are there because of marijuana.”
The Metropolitan Police Department arrested 5,759 people on marijuana charges in 2011, while the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks are eight times as likely as whites to be arrested for weed.
The Post’s poll found that 63 percent of DC residents favor legalization, and of the 34 percent who oppose it, nearly half would still like to see penalties for possession relaxed.
But while activists circulate a petition to get a legalization question on November’s ballot, Mendelson wants to be methodical about it.
“One step at a time,” he says.
The reason for his hesitation? Congress.
“We have to be mindful that Congress can step in at any point,” Mendelson says, comparing the coming fight over decriminalization to the arduous journey of medical marijuana. Although District residents approved a ballot referendum to create a medical marijuana program in 1998, it took another 15 years—mostly thanks to congressional meddling—until the first clinics finally opened last year.