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D.C. Council Holds First Of Two Hearings On Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Under the bill proposed by Wells and Barry, possession of small amounts of marijuana would be a civil offense.
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Under the bill proposed by Wells and Barry, possession of small amounts of marijuana would be a civil offense.

With the D.C. Council poised to pass a bill decriminalizing marijuana, members of the public are getting the chance to weigh in. The first of two hearings on the measure took place on Wednesday evening in Anacostia.

Legislation introduced by Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — and backed by a majority of Council members — would make the possession of small amounts of marijuana a $100 civil fine, rather than an arrest and a permanent criminal record.

“The criminalization of marijuana is not working. Against this wasted effort there is a serious human cost. Every year nearly half the drug arrests are for simple possession of marijuana," he said at the hearing.

Wells says the bill is about social justice, not illegal drugs. He says while white and black residents in D.C. use marijuana at similar rates, black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. That disproportionate impact was one of the big concerns raised by residents at last night’s hearing at the Anacostia Public Library.

“Too many people are sitting in prison for smoking marijuana," said Stewart Anderson of Friends and Family of Incarcerated People.“Most people who get prosecuted… are black. Most people that go to jail for prolonged periods of time… are black. This thing right here, this bill, can and should prevent some of that.”

Others testified about how marijuana arrests can hurt job prospects and destabilize families.

And while most spoke in favor of decriminalization, Pastor Bernard Howard warned about the message it would send to young people.

“I see when we allow this decriminalization, our young men will take that as a green light to think that is OK to use marijuana and to be in that environment. And that world of drugs is only going to end… most of us that have ever done anything realize its gonna end up in the jail or the cemetery," he said.

The hearing will reconvene later today at the Wilson Building. Neither Police Chief Cathy Lanier nor anyone else from MPD is scheduled to testify before the council about the bill.

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