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Marijuana Decriminalization Begins in DC on Thursday. Here’s What You Need to Know.

All your questions about the District's new rules about weed, answered.
Photograph via Shutterstock.

The District’s marijuana decriminalization law finally takes effect at midnight tonight. Instead of being cuffed and hauled off to jail, adults found in possession of one ounce of pot or less will pay a $25 fine. But don’t spark up just yet. Here’s what you need to know about DC’s new cannabis rules.

What caused DC to get on the marijuana reform bandwagon?

A report issued last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union showed deep racial disparities in the rates at which white and black people are arrested for marijuana offenses. In the District, the ACLU found, blacks are arrested more than eight times as often as whites, even though there’s not much difference in the rate at which people use the stuff. The report motivated DC Council members Tommy Wells and Marion Barry to introduce a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana; it passed the Council and was signed into law by Mayor Vince Gray in March.

So why did we have to wait four months?

All legislation passed by the DC Council is subject to a congressional review period, usually of 30 days of Congress being in session. But for laws that affect the District’s criminal code, such as this one, Congress gets 60 days.

What does the law actually do?

Police officers who catch people carrying an ounce or less will now reach for their ticket books instead of handcuffs. Cops will ask violators for their name and address, and while they can’t ask for proof, you can’t refuse to identify yourself or you could be arrested. The police can’t use the odor of marijuana or possession of less than an ounce as a pretext to investigate individuals for other offenses or to request a search warrant. The only exception is if a driver appears to be intoxicated.

Possession of more than an ounce remains illegal, as does public consumption and selling; decriminalization is not the same as legalization. (Giving your tiny stash to another person without payment is allowed, though.)

Does this mean we can carry our weed anywhere in the city?

Not quite. Decriminalization only applies to land under the District’s local jurisdiction. The 21.6 percent of DC controlled by the federal government—the Mall, Rock Creek Park, all those federal office buildings—still fall under federal law. Park Police, US Capitol Police, and other federal law enforcement agencies will still arrest people for possession of any amount of marijuana and turn them over to the US attorney for the District for prosecution. Metro says its Transit Police will follow the city’s lead in stations within the District boundaries.

Okay, I get it. But do the cops?

The Metropolitan Police Department is distributing materials to its officers informing them of the new rules. Besides a lengthy special order, the MPD is also giving officers wallet-sized cards outlining the decriminalization law to distribute to residents. The department plans to add the same information to its website later this week

“The department has developed and implemented training for all members, and has shared this with prosecutors and DC Housing Authority,” MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump writes in an e-mail. “As of midnight, Wednesday night, no member can make or approve an arrest for marijuana possession without having first taken this training.”

There may be some unease in the rank-and-file, though. Delroy Burton, the chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police, tells the Washington Post officers might be confused. “Our officers are going to have to go out there and enforce a convoluted mess,” Burton says.

Marijuana reform activists appear to have more confidence in police officers than their union leader.

“This isn’t rocket science by any stretch of the imagination,” says Bob Capecchi, a deputy director with the Marijuana Policy Project. “I’ve got enough faith in MPD officers they can look at fact sheets and see the new law.”

Statistics cited in the original ACLU report that kicked off the decriminalization push suggest that the District could be primed for a real drop in the number of drug offenses. Seema Sadanandan, the program director at the ACLU’s Washington chapter, says that of the 5,393 marijuana-related arrests made here in 2010, possession was the sole charge in 54 percent.

So that’s decriminalization. What about legalization?

“One popular misconception we have often heard in the community is that the District has legalized the possession or use of marijuana,” Crump writes “This is absolutely not true!”

But legalization could come soon. Pro-pot activists are waiting to see if a petition legalizing possession, consumption, and home cultivation collected enough signatures to make the ballot in November. If it did, it’s likely to pass, considering 63 percent of DC voters supported the notion in a poll earlier this year.

Council member David Grosso wants to go even further, and is pushing legislation that would create in the District a taxable, retail marijuana market similar to Colorado and Washington state.

But isn’t Congress trying to stop this?

The House on Wednesday afternoon passed an appropriations bill containing a rider sponsored by Representative Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland, that would prohibit the District from executing the decriminalization law. But as noted many times already, Harris’s amendment stands very little chance of survival. It’s unlikely to be copied in the Senate’s companion spending act, and President Obama has already signaled his intention to veto the House’s bill if it reaches his desk.

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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.