Marijuana Decriminalization Hearings Begin Wednesday

The DC Council will consider removing criminal penalties for less than an ounce of weed, but some activists think that doesn't go far enough.

By: Benjamin Freed

Hearings begin tonight on a DC Council bill that seeks to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Council members Tommy Wells and Marion Barry are taking their bill to the Anacostia Neighborhood Library in Southeast, where residents can chime in on the matter before it goes to a DC Council hearing on Thursday.

The “Simple Possession of Small Quantities Of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013” would make it a civil, rather than criminal, offense to carry less than one ounce of pot. Instead of an arrest, court date, and possible jail time, small-time weed possession would result in a $100 fine. (And the forfeiture of the marijuana.)

Wells and Barry are introducing their bill a few months after an American Civil Liberties Union report found that black people in the District are arrested for marijuana use or possession more than eight times as often as whites. In 2011, the Metropolitan Police Department made 5,759 pot-related busts. Wells’s office also cites a Washington Lawyers Committee report that found that black residents were the subject of 91 percent of all drug arrests in DC over a three-year period ending 2011.

The decriminalization bill is modeled after one adopted in Massachusetts in 2009. But while it would take the District’s drug policy in a more progressive direction, not all pro-marijuana activists are pleased. Adam Eidinger, the former owner of Capitol Hemp, plans to have members of his group, DCMJ, testify against the decriminalization measure in favor of full legalization policy.

Eidinger told Washingtonian he worries a decriminalization law could lead to “raids” by police officers of large crowds for the purpose of writing a flurry of tickets. His group is also hoping to put a referendum on next year’s ballot that would legalize the use, possession, and home cultivation of marijuana.

"I am really worried about shakedowns of concertgoers and other large events like protests," Eidinger says. He also says that if DC goes the decriminalization route, he would like to see the cap raised to two ounces, with no fine for possession of less than one ounce.

Another Council member, David Grosso, is pushing legislation that would legalize weed, including taxation of marijuana and paraphernalia, and the establishment of legal limits for driving while high. Wells and Barry’s bill already has six co-sponsors, enough for a majority on the Council. Grosso’s has none.

The hearing begins tonight at 6:30 PM at the Anacostia Neighborhood Library at 1800 Good Hope Rd., Southeast, and continues tomorrow at the John A. Wilson Building.