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D.C. Council Gives Final Approval To Marijuana Decriminalization

As long as it's kept inside, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana carries a fine of $25.
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As long as it's kept inside, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana carries a fine of $25.

By a 10-1 vote, the D.C. Council passed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana on Tuesday.

The bill would make it a $25 civil fine if a person is caught with an ounce or less of marijuana. Under the current law, possession carries a criminal penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) was the lone "no" vote, saying that the city should keep it illegal or legalize it completely.

"It does not makes sense to have the possession of marijuana a civil infraction when the sale and the consumption are still illegal," Alexander said. "There will still be arrests when someone is smoking marijuana on the corner or when someone is selling marijuana on the corner. If you're the lucky one to happen to possess it, than you are off the hook."

Council members overwhelmingly voted in favor of the bill during the first vote, although language was added to that bill that would keep smoking pot in public a crime. The penalty would be similar to open-container laws for alcohol.

“This is a big step forward for our nation’s capital, as well as our nation as a whole,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, shortly after the bill's passage. “Clearly, marijuana prohibition’s days are numbered in the United States.”

Seventeen states have decriminalized marijuana, and some advocates in D.C. are trying to go further by pushing for legalization of the drug through a voter initiative. This week the D.C. Board of Elections is expected to rule whether the issue gets to be on the ballot.

Arrests for possession in the District occur at twice the rate than just about all 50 states. A report by the ACLU last year also found a marked racial disparity in marijuana arrests — black residents were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts.

"In D.C., there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana — 90 percent are African-American," said Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "Our action today does not repeal all negative impacts caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves in the right direction."

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