News & Politics

DC Council Passes Marijuana Decriminalization

Mayor Vince Gray will sign it into law, but Congress could still snuff it out.

But don't rush to smoke just yet. Photograph via Shutterstock.

The DC Council gave its final approval to decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana this afternoon, replacing criminal penalties with $25 fines for one ounce or less. With Mayor Vince Gray saying he will sign the bill, but the legislation faces only one more test: making it past the US Congress.

Which means marijuana activists should not exhale just yet. A spokesman for Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says her office does not know of any members of Congress who are looking to jab their fingers into the city’s affairs, and, in the event a random federal legislator does, Norton “will fight vigorously if there is any attempt to interfere with local law,” the spokesman says.

Introduced in January by Council member and mayoral hopeful Tommy Wells, the bill’s passed with only Yvette Alexander, who represents Ward 7, voting against it. Wells’s fellow mayoral candidate Vincent Orange introduced an amendment that would have prohibited employers screening prospective hires for drug use—seemingly pro-decriminalization except for its potential effect on DC residents’ ability to get jobs with the federal government or its contractors. No one joined Orange in backing his amendment.

Orange, who switched his vote on the final bill from “yes” to “present,” also accused Wells of timing his bill ahead of the April 1 Democratic primary to appeal to voters who are in a “rush to smoke.”

Decriminalization’s backers say their true intent is to reduce DC’s arrest rate for marijuana-related offenses, one of the highest in the nation, which disproportionately affects black residents. Black residents are eight times as likely as white residents to be arrested for marijuana, even though the rate of use is even between the groups, an ACLU report released last year found. “We should not be saddling people with criminal records simply for using a substance that is less harmful than alcohol,” says Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Smoking in public remains a criminal offense punishable by 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500, but the bill also raises the standard for police, specifying that individuals cannot be detained or searched based solely on a cop’s suspicion of possession.

While decriminalization is a big step for the District, some on the Council anticipate going further.  A ballot initiative asking voters to weigh in on full legalization this November is currently being reviewed by the DC Board of Elections, with a decision expected as soon as this week.

Council member David Grosso eagerly awaits the day he can introduce a legalization bill similar to Colorado’s. “I look forward to the next step, when this city steps up to the plate and passes a tax-and-regulate bill,” Grosso said at today’s hearing.

First, though, the decriminalization bill needs to survive Congress. But the outlook is optimistic, Wells’s spokesman Jack Pfeiffer says.

“Even when these things have national headlines, [members of Congress] don’t notice them until they’re on their desk,” Pfeiffer says. “We’re not legalizing it. It’s a major social-justice problem.”

Cue up a bunch of “Nation’s Capital Decriminalizes Weed” headlines.

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.