On March 4th, 2014, the Washington D.C city council officially passed a bill that decriminalizes marijuana possession in the district. The bill now goes to DC Mayor Vincent Gray for final approval. Gray has previously expressed interest in loosening marijuana laws and is expected to sign it. Once that happens, Congress has 60 days to disallow it before it becomes law, but given the political climate regarding marijuana policy these days, we expect Congress to let this become law.
There was one vote against on the bill, but not for the reasons you may think. Council member Alexander opposed the decriminalization measure for a variety of reasons, a few of which she laid out for the council. One reason she gave for opposing the measure was that people who have public housing and now may choose to smoke decriminalized marijuana are still subject to being ousted from public housing for doing so.
Ms. Alexander didn’t stop with the public housing issue. She went on to say that it doesn’t make sense to remove penalties for possession but not also for smoking and selling. She further went on to say that this bill probably won’t result in a significant reduction in arrests – because smoking and selling marijuana will still be illegal. Council member Alexander made the case that the council should keep it illegal, or legalize it comprehensively and address the issue of marijuana’s sale, and a number of accompanying issues that the decriminalization bill ignores.
Another council member raised the issue of employee drug testing in the district but his amendment failed to pass. Council member Orange proposed an amendment that would have read: “During the hiring process employers shall not test any potential employee for marijuana use if they are not also testing for alcohol use, unless otherwise required by law.” This amendment failed to pass the council due to concerns of the impact it would have on the District’s business community.
The good news is – the bill passed and people who are stopped with small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia will no longer face possible jail time or stiff fines. This means that, besides Colorado and Washington, our nation’s capital now has the least punitive marijuana laws in our nation.
The underlying issues still remain, however. People will still be arrested for consuming marijuana in public, people will be still be turned away from jobs for choosing to use a substance that is safer than alcohol, and people will still face penalties for possessing or consuming marijuana while they make use of public housing. Nevertheless – yesterday represents a victory for the reform movement. The sole nay vote against the measure was cast because the measure didn’t go far enough to address these issues – perhaps the council will address them in the future.
Yesterday was a great day for reformers. After 11 months of deliberation and careful consideration the council finally passed the measure to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. A more sensible approach is sweeping the nation and the D.C council has made a great first step toward enacting much needed reform.