D.C. fast-tracks decriminalizing pot


It took nearly 15 years after voters approved medical marijuana for it to become available in Washington, D.C., but the next major change to pot laws in the U.S. capital is on the fast track.

The D.C. Council is poised to approve a bill that will decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, and Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, announced last month that he supports it. He could sign the bill into law as early as January.

Some activists want the city to go further by legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana as Colorado and Washington state do, and they are considering a ballot initiative if the council does not take that step.

It is a big change from a year ago, when there was no medical marijuana in the capital and elected officials were not talking about relaxing recreational pot laws. Now there are three tightly regulated marijuana dispensaries in the city, although there aren’t many patients yet.

City leaders have long been cautious about pot, in part because Congress has the final say on what is legal in the district. But with 17 states having some form of decriminalization and the Justice Department taking a hands-off approach to legalization in Colorado and Washington state, city leaders think Congress will not be interested in fighting that battle.

The new sense of urgency has been fueled in part by two studies released this year that found large racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the city. Blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites in D.C. in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union found, and 91 percent of those arrested that year were black. About half of the city’s 632,000 residents are African-American.

“We have hundreds of young black men, black boys, being locked up, for simple possession of a couple bags of marijuana,” said Democratic Councilor Marion Barry, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Congress has disapproved of only three pieces of legislation passed by the D.C. Council, the last in 1991. A more frequent tactic for members who disapprove of policies in the heavily Democratic district is to insert language in the city’s appropriations bill. That is what then-Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, did in 1999 to block the city from spending money on its medical marijuana program, which district voters had approved the previous year.

The so-called rider remained on the city’s budget until 2009. After a regulatory process, medical marijuana became available this year. It is allowed only for patients with HIV or AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and conditions such as multiple sclerosis that cause severe spasms. Only 59 patients have so far registered to buy medical marijuana.

Even with decriminalization, the district is not about to become a pot haven. Possession will still be barred on federal land, which encompasses more than 20 percent of the city. And federal law enforcement officers — such as the U.S. Park Police or Capitol Police — can make arrests for violations of federal law on local property.

The bill will decriminalize possession of less than 1 ounce (28 grams) of pot. While potential fines haven’t been finalized, Democratic council member Tommy Wells, the bill’s lead sponsor, is considering $25. That will be lower than the civil fines in any state except Alaska, which has none.

While such laws are widespread on the West Coast and in the northeastern New England states, no mid-Atlantic state has decriminalized pot.