In just two months marijuana could be decriminalized in the nation’s capital. Tuesday afternoon the D.C. City Council overwhelmingly gave approved the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 with only one council member voting against it and one voting present. The bill now moves to the mayor who is expected to sign it.
The bill would reduce the penalty for being caught with less than an ounce of marijuana to only a $25 fine. Currently marijuana possession is a misdemeanor which can result in up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. A report showing that minorities are overwhelmingly more likely to be prosecuted for marijuana violations helped spur the council to take action.
The one real remaining hurdle is the U.S. Congress. Because of the incredibly unfair and anti-democratic nature of the laws governing D.C., Congress technically has final say over all legal matters in the district, and the citizens of the district have no representation in Congress. Before the new law goes into effect it goes to Congress for a 60 legislative day review period.*
In the past Congress has abused this power to block local drug policy reform in the district. For example in 1998 the people of D.C. overwhelmingly voted for medical marijuana but Congress stepped in and stopped the district from implementing a program for over a decade. Given shifting attitudes and recent statements by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) it seems unlikely that Congress will interfere this time.
*Updated to reflect review is 60 legislative days
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy