News & Politics

DC Council Approves Weakened Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Possession would be punishable by a fine, but an amendment keeps sparking up in public a criminal offense.

Decriminalization moves ahead, but please, leave that one-hitter at home. Photograph via Shutterstock.

The DC Council voted in favor of advancing a bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but not before weakening in a way that the bill’s backers say will perpetuate the District’s arrest rates for marijuana use.

The bill, introduced by Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells, changes possession of one ounce or less from a misdemeanor criminal charge to a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. Currently, small-time possession can bring six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, and a criminal record that can jeopardize a person’s career.

But the Council, led by Chairman Phil Mendelson, voted for an amendment adding language that makes smoking pot in public a crime on par with carrying an open container of alcohol, keeping the current penalties. 

“If the use of alcohol in public is a criminal offense, so too it should be for marijuana,” Mendelson said. Mendelson defended the amendment by painting marijuana smoke as a potential public menace, recalling a trip to the Gallery Place movie theater last weekend with his daughter and passing someone getting high outside. “As a parent, I was not pleased about that at all.”

But Wells and other supporters of reforming the District’s marijuana laws point to the city’s arrest rate for possession, which is among the highest in the nation. The Metropolitan Police Department arrested 5,759 people on marijuana charges in 2011, and a report last year from American Civil Liberties Union found that black residents are eight times as likely as white residents to be arrested for weed, even though the rate of its use is roughly even between blacks and whites.

Mendelson also argued that the bill leaves open a wide berth for people to consume marijuana in public through ways other than smoking it, producing one of the more bizarre exchanges of the afternoon.

“As a practical matter, a cop across the street is not going to know you’re eating a dope-laden brownie,” Mendelson said.

Replied Wells: “If I’m mad at my friend, I can say, ‘Officer, there’s dope in those brownies. I know, because I put it there.’”

“I’m trying to preserve whatever power the police have to enforce against smoking marijuana in public,” Mendelson followed.

In a letter to the Council, Mayor Vince Gray reiterated his support for decriminalization, but expressed fear that as originally written, the bill could lead to the re-emergence of open-air drug markets, a concern he wrote is shared by DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier. And though the amendment passed on a voice vote, it did not end the debate about DC’s high rate of marijuana-related prosecutions.

“Somehow there is a belief that arrests don’t matter,” said Council member David Grosso, who was charged with possession in the District in 1993. “It was not a career-ender for me. That is not the same for everyone.”

David Catania, who is planning to run for mayor as an independent, jumped in with a own story. While he supports decriminalization, he said his life of abstaining from the occasional puff can be attributed to an “intense fear” of his mother “I’ll find out and I’ll kill you,” Catania recalled his mother saying about his potential for pot use as a kid growing up in Kansas City, Missouri.

The decriminalization bill passed, with only Yvette Alexander voting in opposition, and faces a final vote later this month, when it will be subject to more amendments. And even though Wells was disappointed by Mendelson’s addition, other marijuana reformers see it as a potential boon to their cause.

“In a way the Council is doing us a favor if they make it even more restrictive,” says Adam Eidinger, the former proprietor of the now-shuttered Capitol Hemp stores. “[Decriminalization] is really a huge step forward. The other side of the stream is legalization.”

Eidinger is currently leading an movement to get a legalization measure on November’s ballot, and says his initiative’s language is about to go before the DC Board of Elections, with a petition drive to follow this spring if it’s approved. (Eidinger’s group plans to use volunteers and as many as 50 paid canvassers to collect enough signatures to put the weed legalization issue before voters.)

A recent poll by the Washington Post found that 63 percent of DC residents favor full legalization, and with decriminalization only one more Council vote away from Gray’s pen, Eidinger feels confident about his chances.

“This council is going to have to write a legalization law,” he says.

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.