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District of Columbia Downgrades Marijuana Penalties

In July 2014, a new District of Columbia law came into effect that made possession of marijuana a civil offense rather than a criminal offense. The law was approved by the D.C. council in the spring, but it had to pass a 60-day congressional review period before becoming active.

Individuals caught in possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana under the new law no longer face arrest and criminal charges. Instead, they will simply be issued a ticket, like one a police officer might write for littering or civil violation. However, individuals found in possession of more than 1 ounce will still be subject to criminal charges. Smoking marijuana has also merged with existing open container laws, making it a criminal offense to smoke in a vehicle or in public. However, the penalty for these offenses is still less than the former penalty for marijuana possession.

Racial Disparity Prompts Passing of Law

In the district, roughly 47 percent of the adult population is black, while 43 percent is white. However, a recent study undertaken by a group of civil rights lawyers in Washington found that 80 percent of adults in the district who face arrest for any reason are black, 80 percent of those arrested for disorderly conduct are black, and 90 percent of those who are arrested for simple drug possession are black.

These stark disparities prompted district lawmakers to change their policy regarding marijuana. Unlike the recent actions of two states – Colorado and Washington – the District of Columbia did not legalize recreational marijuana. However, lawmakers believe the new legislation will have the twofold effect of stopping what the study authors called the “[criminalization of] a large portion of the African American community” while also freeing law enforcement officials from spending so much time addressing non-life-threatening behavior.

The study covered the years 2009-2011, and was prompted in part by surveys that showed the number of drug arrests in the district had been steadily growing. The disparities they found were so significant that in 2010, nearly 30 percent of the total population of black adults in the district were arrested, compared to only 2 percent of the population of white adults.

Law Limits Police Actions

The new district law places several additional restrictions on how the police may proceed if they suspect a person of marijuana possession. In the past, the smell of marijuana was considered due cause for an officer to question or search a suspect. However, under the new law, smelling marijuana is no longer sufficient reason for the police to take action.

The new law also states that police officers do not have the right to demand identification from someone found in possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, and that people in this situation do not have to produce identification if an officer does request it.

An officer in the district who finds someone carrying 1 ounce or less of marijuana is now directed to write the person a ticket and to confiscate the drug. The ticket for a marijuana violation carries a $25 fine.

Law enforcement workers in the district have mixed feelings about the new law, and many are concerned about the long-term effects. Some critics feel that the law is vague and confusing, and will be difficult for officers to enforce. Others have criticized the studies showing racial disparities, saying that they oversimplify the realities of urban policing.

Previous Arrests Will Stand

A number of people in the district were arrested for marijuana possession or other related charges during the night of July 16, just hours before the new law took effect. However, even with the changes to marijuana policy, it appears that the charges from that night will stand. None of the cases appear to meet the criteria for simple marijuana possession of 1 ounce or less; instead, they all seem to fall under activity that is still criminal under the law, such as driving under the influence of marijuana.

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