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Civil Rights Groups Back Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In D.C.

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Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would carry a fine amounting to less than a parking ticket.
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Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would carry a fine amounting to less than a parking ticket.

On the eve of the first vote in the D.C. Council on a measure that some are calling the strongest marijuana decriminalization bill in the country, a coalition of civil rights and civil liberties groups is calling on District lawmakers to enact the measure.

The legislation, which would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil fine of $25, was prompted in part by an ACLU study in the summer of 2013 which looked at the racial disparity in arrests in the District of Columbia related to marijuana enforcement.

"What we found was startling," says Seema Sadanandan of the ACLU. "We found that black people here in the District are more than eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that black and white communities had nearly equal usage rates."

Under current law, possession carries a criminal penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

"This bill really is a first measure at addressing that racial disparity and racial profiling more generally in the District," says Patrice Sulton, a lawyer with the NAACP.

The bill is sponsored by Councilman Tommy Wells, who chairs the council's Committee on Public Safety. So far, Wells says the legislation has the support of as many as 10 council members.

"This is a bill that really rights a social injustice for the city, and hopefully will certainly be a model for around the country," Wells says.

Wells has expressed concern with attempts to amend the bill, including an effort to criminalize outdoor smoking, saying that it undermines the whole bill. Bill Piper with the Drug Policy Alliance Network agrees.

"Any vote to weaken any part of this bill is a vote to perpetuate racial disparities and we urge the council to vote on the bill as-is," Piper says.

The D.C. Council will make an initial vote on the measure tomorrow, followed by a second vote later this month. Wells says he is hopeful that the bill will be on Mayor Vincent Gray's desk for a signature by the end of the month.

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