D.C. Council OKs dropping fine for pot possession to $25

Which offense is likely to carry a bigger fine soon in Washington, D.C.?

a) Parking near a fire hydrant.

b) Possessing pot.

If you answered “a,” you are correct: Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would be a civil infraction with a $25 fine under a plan that won easy approval from the District of Columbia City Council on Tuesday.

Backers called it one of the most lenient decriminalization laws in the nation and said the next step would be to make marijuana fully legal in the nation’s capital, as Colorado and Washington state did in 2012.

The bill passed on a 10-1 vote. Once it’s signed by Mayor Vincent Gray, Congress will have 30 working days to review the new law, which means it might not take effect until summer. Congress has the authority to overturn any laws the council passes.

Congress put D.C.’s medical marijuana plan on ice after it passed in 1998, but no one’s expecting a peep of opposition on Capitol Hill this time, another sign of the drug’s surging public acceptance, as reflected by public opinion polls.

“This is just not on their radar,” said Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The story is just how much things have changed. Congress just doesn’t care because they’ve got the message this is really popular.”

D.C. council members who backed the change argued that the current penalty _ a fine of up to $1,000 and a possible six-month prison sentence for possessing any amount _ hit minorities disproportionately hard. Studies show the District of Columbia has a higher marijuana arrest rate than any state, with blacks accounting for 90 percent of the arrests.

“One drug charge can change a life forever,” said council member Tommy Wells, the bill’s chief sponsor, who called Tuesday’s decision a “historic vote.”

Critics said the measure didn’t go far enough, still allowing police to issue citations but not permitting D.C. to collect tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.

“Decriminalization is missing out on the tax base, and it’s treating the user still like a second-class citizen,” said Adam Eidinger, the chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign.

He was upset that the council decided to amend the legislation to add a $500 fine and a possible 60-day jail sentence for smoking marijuana in public, keeping it a criminal offense: “If you can smoke a cigarette on the sidewalk, you should be able to smoke a joint on a sidewalk. There really is no difference.”

Things could get a little confusing, with marijuana possession on federal property remaining a federal crime, punishable by a fine of $1,000 and jail time. The federal government owns nearly 22 percent of the land in the federal capital.

“A map of D.C. will be needed, as there will a hodgepodge of laws and enforcement based on where one is standing at any given moment,” said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Riffle said most people who violated the law on federal property were fined from $100 to $200. He’s expecting the disparity to continue.

“It’s just part of the cluster that is D.C. law,” Riffle said. “I can tell you, as a D.C. resident myself, there’s a lot of things that don’t make sense about the way D.C. is treated.”

Council member Yvette Alexander, who cast the only dissenting vote, said it made no sense to have a law that decriminalized possession of marijuana while its sale and consumption in public remained criminal offenses.

“There will still be arrests when someone is smoking marijuana on the corner or when someone is selling marijuana on the corner,” she said, urging the council to take a comprehensive look at the issue. “You can’t deal with little sections of this bill.”

Eidinger said he backed decriminalization only as a way of “breaking the ice” while legalization backers in D.C. remain focused on getting the issue on the November ballot.

If that happens, D.C. will join two states that are set to vote on pot initiatives this year: In August, Alaskans will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, while Floridians will vote in November on whether to allow it for medical uses.

The issue has won broad backing from D.C. residents.

A Washington Post poll in January found that 63 percent of the city’s citizens now support legalization, with residents of every age, race and ethnicity showing double-digit increases in the past four years. Of those who opposed legalization, nearly half said marijuana should be decriminalized.

Only a handful of residents registered complaints with the council at a public hearing in October: Yvonne Williams, the chairwoman of the board of trustees of Bible Way Church, worried that pot affects the user’s developing brain cells and would lead to a “marijuana industrial complex,” while LaDaveon Butler, a member of the church’s youth ministry, expressed concern about marijuana smoke near his apartment building and said pot made people lazy and unproductive.

But opponents of legalization claimed a victory of sorts in Tuesday’s vote, too.

Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser for President Barack Obama who’s now the director of the anti-legalization group Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), said Congress would be unlikely to interfere because D.C. police weren’t targeting low-level pot users now and that the law “will simply catch up to the reality.”

But he said it was significant that the council opted to approve decriminalization instead of legalization.

“Legalization groups failed to get their true objective voted on because D.C. residents do not want the mass normalization and commercialization of another legal drug,” Sabet said. “I think we can all say that the district is having a difficult time enough dealing with the effects of liquor stores, especially on low-income communities. They don’t want to add another headache.”

D.C. would join 17 states that have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized possession of small amounts, with Vermont the latest to eliminate criminal penalties, last year.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune