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Wells, Barry To Introduce Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Under a bill to be proposed tomorrow, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in D.C. would become a civil offense.
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Under a bill to be proposed tomorrow, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in D.C. would become a civil offense.

Getting caught with a small amount of pot in D.C. may soon fetch little more than a fine.

D.C. Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) will introduce a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana on Wednesday.

Under the provisions of the bill, the penalty for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will be dropped to a civil penalty punishable by a $100 fine; it is currently a misdemeanor offense that can be met with six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. The bill would also mandate that minors caught with less than an ounce of marijuana attend a drug awareness program.

Wells and Barry first floated the idea in May, but will formally introduce the measure on the Council's last legislative session before a two-month summer recess.

Groups favoring decriminalization are considering a push for a November 2014 referendum that would allow city voters to decide the issue, but Barry has said that he thinks the Council should take the lead on decriminalization. In an April poll, 75 percent of D.C. residents would support making the possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense.

If the Council passes the bill, it will have to survive the usual period of congressional review, where Republicans may cast a doubtful look on any move to loosen marijuana laws in the nation's capital.

More than a dozen states have eliminated jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In a related move, Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) says he is working on a broader bill that would legalize marijuana altogether, allowing the city to tax and regulate it under a program similar to that approved by Washington state voters in November 2012. That measure won't likely be introduced until the fall, though, and Grosso says he will be meeting with various drug policy and civil liberties groups to fine-tune it.

"I think we should stop putting non-violent drug offenders behind bars... the best way is to tax and regulate marijuana," he said.

In June the ACLU reported that D.C. leads the nation in per capita marijuana arrests, and noted that a significant racial disparity exists in possession arrests—blacks account for 91 percent of marijuana possession arrests in D.C., and were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts.

According to D.C. police statistics, close to 4,300 people were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2011 in D.C., up from the 2,150 that were arrested for the same crime a decade earlier. All told, marijuana-related arrests—including possession, distribution, conspiracy to distribute and possession with an intent to distribute—jumped from 3,487 in 2001 to 5,759 in 2011.

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