It’s official, sort of. Marijuana is decriminalized in the District of Columbia as of July 18. But the move, aimed in part at reducing incarceration for pot use could have the opposite effect.
Adopted by the D.C. Council in April, the “Marijuana Possession Decriminalization (MPD) Amendment Act of 2014” replaced criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana with a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it.
But that doesn’t mean that pot is legal in D.C., Gwendolyn Crump, public information officer for the Metropolitan Police Department, has pointed out. In a recent statement, Crump said pot users in D.C. should be keenly aware of how the law will be enforced before firing up in public.
“There is a one popular misconception often heard in the community that the District has legalized the possession or use of marijuana. This is absolutely not true,” said Crump. In order to proactively inform the community of the new law, MPD officers are distributing business card-sized information handouts to community members.
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana in the District also warn residents to beware of the twists and turns in the law that might cause an arrest. Smoking marijuana in public is still illegal and can result in a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
“The law does not allow you to buy it, grow it, smoke it, consume it, sell it, or give it away. It just means that if you get caught with it, you will be given a $25 ticket, instead of handcuffs and a very big headache,” said a spokesman for the DC Cannabis Campaign, the group responsible for collecting 57,000 petition signatures to place the legalization of marijuana on the November ballot.
“One of the best developments to come out of this new law is that MPD officers do not have probable cause to search you, your car, or your home based on the smell of marijuana alone,” the spokesman continued.
In order to reduce racially-biased stop-and-frisk episodes, this new law contains a provision that prohibits a police officer from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for conducting criminal searches, the first decriminalization legislation in the country to do so.
The new law also shields people caught with a small amount of marijuana from collateral consequences like being denied public assistance or having a D.C- issued drivers’ license suspended or revoked.
A Republican member of the Maryland delegation to the House of Representatives, however, wants to derail the law. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) led an anti-decriminalization drive that resulted in approval by the House Appropriations Committee in June of a budget bill forbidding D.C. from spending federal funds to enforce the new law.
“When I became a physician, I took an oath to do no harm, and decriminalizing marijuana will harm D.C. residents, especially teens. We should be doing all we can to protect the health and safety of teens throughout the District—and the language in this bill will help us do that,” Harris, an anesthesiologist, said in a statement.
The District of Columbia currently has the highest per capita marijuana arrest rates in the U.S. In 2010, African Americans in the District accounted for 91 percent of all marijuana arrests – even though African American and White residents use marijuana at roughly similar rates, according to federal justice data.