Last Tuesday, February 4, the Washington D.C. City Council voted to decriminalize less than an ounce of marijuana possession by a wide margin of 11-1. The bill now becomes one of the most lax decriminalized marijuana laws in the country, as possession of less than an ounce will now only garner a $25 fine. It does remain criminal to smoke marijuana in public in the District, but the maximum penalty was decreased from six months to 60 days.
The bill will face a second vote before going to Mayor Vincent Gray for approval, but Mayor Gray has stated that he is in favor of the change.
Some may be surprised that the bill was passed so overwhelmingly, but, considering the makeup of the population of D.C., it’s easy to see why so many council members saw the light. Washington D.C.’s population is close to 50% African American, but about 90% of the arrests for drugs in the District are for black people. This is despite the fact that African Americans do not use drugs at a higher rate, as shown in this Washington Post piece that also helped to highlight the racial disparity in arrests. These statistics are simply a reflection of the selective and racist enforcement of drug war policies.
Such a racial disparity is one of the leading reasons that legalization of marijuana — or at the very least decriminalization — must happen, especially when the plant was made illegal almost a century ago due in part due to racist propaganda.
While many council members who passed the law pointed out legitimate points like the racial disparity and how only one marijuana arrests can result in the inability to find a job, it must be noted that the one council member to vote against the bill, Yvette Alexander, brought up a point that is a legitimate concern, but nonetheless still too minor to not support decriminalization. Alexander worried that “We’re sending a message that it’s okay to smoke pot.”
Not exactly. The message that we’re sending is that it’s not okay to deprive people of job opportunities and their future for simple possession of a plant that is one of the safest substances known to man, as DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young said almost 26 years ago: “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”
Last week’s events in the D.C. Council are a huge step forward for our nation and its capital.