News & Politics

Marijuana Decriminalization Moves Along in DC Council

A bill making weed possession punishable by a small fine is a step closer to reality, but several questions still linger.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

The District moved a step closer to decriminalizing marijuana after the full DC Council took its first pass at a bill that would make small-time weed possession a matter of a $25 fine instead of a criminal record and jail time.

The bill, introduced by Tommy Wells, made its way through the Committee of the Whole on Thursday. And while the bill already has enough co-sponsors to ensure a majority when it comes up, several of Wells’s colleagues still have their doubts.

Yvette Alexander, who has been the Council’s foremost opponent of decriminalizing marijuana, wanted to know if repeated citiations could result in escalating fines. Wells replied that the bill always charges $25 for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.

While some Council members raised the fact that $25 is less than the cost of a parking ticket, a marijuana citation would effectively cost more when confiscation is factored in.

This gave rise to discussion—and confusion about the street price of pot in DC. Alexander guessed that an ounce costs upward of $400, but according to the website Price of Weed, an ounce of a high-quality strain averages $351 here.

Other Council members wanted to know under what conditions DC police would be able to search someone for marijuana. The bill, as drafted, allows officers to search a stopped car for weed only if smoke is visible; the mere whiff is not enough. Muriel Bowser, who, like Wells, is running for mayor, asked if police could cite people smoking weed on their porches. Wells said no.

The Council agreed unanimously to move the decriminalization bill to its next legislative session on February 4, but the lengthy discussion it got today all but ensures a long hearing when it comes up for its first vote. Numerous amendments are also likely, including one from Alexander that would send the money collected from marijuana tickets to a substance-abuse treatment fund.

Even with the objections of some legislators, it is all but certain that within the next few months the District, where 63 percent of people support full legalization, will pass the decriminalization bill. Mayor Vince Gray has said he will sign it, but as with all of DC’s laws, the ultimate say lies with Congress, which in the past has shown plenty of eagerness to meddle with the District’s affairs when pot is involved: Congress held up the city’s medical marijuana initiative for more than a decade.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.