At 12:01 Thursday morning, marijuana possession was officially decriminalizedin Washington, D.C. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will now result in only a $25 fine and its confiscation. Previously, an arrest for small amounts of marijuana could have resulted in large fines, a criminal record, and even months in jail.
Not only will possession result in just a small fine, but the law also prohibits police officers from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for conducting a search. D.C. now has one of the most progressive marijuana laws in the country.
The D.C. Council voted on the new law back in March, but it didn’t go into effect until today because, unfairly, all local laws must undergo a congressional review. Only after a local D.C. bill sits in Congress for a set period of time without Congress taking action against it does it become law. Despite the fact that the citizens of D.C. have no representation in Congress, Congress has the power to override any local D.C. law it wants.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) is still trying to use this undemocratic power to undo this new decriminalization law and prevent future marijuana reforms in the city, but President Obama has promised to veto the spending bill containing Harris’ amendment.
The Council’s push for this new law was driven by racial justice concerns. According to the ACLU, the District had both one of the highest marijuana arrest rates in the country and one of the greatest levels of racial disparity in these arrests. Despite similar marijuana use rates among whites and blacks, blacks were 8 times more likely to be arrested in D.C.
This new law may only be temporary because even more extensive marijuana reform could be coming to the District in the near future. The DCMJ campaign recently submitted signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot to actually legalize possession of up to two ounces and limited home growing.
One word of caution to people in the District: Roughly half of D.C. is federal land on which federal law enforcement can still theoretically arrest you under federal statutes, so don’t be an idiot and try to bring marijuana into a federal building. In addition, publicly consuming marijuana is still a misdemeanor.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy
Photo by Travis under Creative Commons license