At Kojo In Your Community event on March 12, 2014, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier spoke addressed marijuana decriminalization.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said she doesn't think new legislation on marijuana will have a big impact on crime in the District, even as a bill decriminalizing possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is awaiting Congressional review.
At a taping of Kojo In Your Community at NPR Headquarters on Wednesday night, Lanier said that "very, very few" people actually spend time in jail for possessing small quantities of marijuana.
"Anybody that spends time in jail for marijuana probably had a pretty good quantity of marijuana, or was arrested for distribution or sale," Lanier said. "Marijuana has not been one of those things that you see lengthy jail terms for, at least not since I've been in policing here."
Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana currently carries a maximum criminal penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The new bill passed by a 10-1 vote in the D.C. Council last week reduces the penalty for possession to a $25 civil fine.
The police chief acknowledged the results of a Washington Lawyers Committee study (PDF) that found six out of 10 drug arrests in the District were for simple possession, and that nine out of 10 arrests for possession involved African Americans. There is little difference in the rate of drug use between whites and African Americans, according to the study, but African Americans are arrested for drugs at a disproportionately high rate.
"The highest correlation between marijuana use and marijuana arrests is poverty — unemployment and education," Lanier said. "I get about 7,000 calls into our 911 center a year for drug complaints, open air drug use. And the vast majority of those calls — I'd say 85 percent or more — come from the communities east of the river. Because these are people who don't want their children walking to school, walking through a group of guys smoking marijuana."
A similar report from the ACLU found that D.C.'s rate of arrest for marijuana possession is more than three times the national average among states.
Lanier added that her main concern with the relaxation of penalties for possession is that it will lead to an increase in the rates of driving while intoxicated. It's a problem against which the state of Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012, has been waging a $1 million advertising campaign.