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Everything You Need To Know About Marijuana Decriminalization In D.C.

Starting tonight at midnight, the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will fetch a $25 ticket.
Starting tonight at midnight, the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will fetch a $25 ticket.

Starting at midnight tonight, the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in D.C. will be treated as a minor offense punishable by a $25 fine. Here's everything you need to know about marijuana decriminalization in the nation's capital.

Where did this come from?

Last year, the ACLU published a report in which it said that African-American residents in D.C. accounted for 91 percent of all arrests for marijuana possession. The report prompted Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to introduce a measure decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, which was passed by the D.C. Council in March and signed by Mayor Vincent Gray later that month. The 60-day congressional review period of the bill ends tomorrow.

What does the law actually say?

MPD has printed up wallet-size cards explaining D.C.'s decriminalization law.

As of the stroke of midnight tonight, anyone caught with less than one ounce of marijuana will be cited and issued a $25 ticket. Under existing law, possession carries a criminal penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

If you're caught, a police officer will confiscate any marijuana and drug paraphernalia, ask for your name and address and issue you a ticket. You can be arrested if you refuse to provide a name and address, though you do not have to provide an ID.

Anything more than one ounce remains illegal, and the law does not allow anyone to sell the one ounce they can possess. (A transfer without remuneration is legal, though.) Public smoking will remain an arrestable offense, as will operating a motor vehicle under the influence of the drug.

And remember: geography matters. As was made clear during a House hearing on the D.C. decriminalization bill in May, the city's new law only applies to the Metropolitan Police Department. Other police forces — such as the U.S. Park Police, U.S. Capitol Police or Secret Service — are charged with enforcing federal law in the areas of the city's they have jurisdiction over (roughly 22 percent of the city's land), and they will still arrest anyone for possessing marijuana, regardless of what D.C.'s law says. (Metro says that Transit Police will follow D.C.'s law within city limits.)

D.C. police have produced handy wallet-sized cards that include all the information you need on the law.

Wait, didn't Congress stop D.C. from implementing marijuana decriminalization?

Kind of.

Last month, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) inserted a provision in a bill funding the D.C. government that would stop police from spending any money on implementing the decriminalization law. The full spending bill hits the House floor today, but it hasn't made it through the Senate or been signed by President Obama. Even if it gets to his desk, Obama has said that he would likely veto the bill if the provision remained in it.

Last week, Harris did say he would withdraw his objections if D.C. legislators rewrote the decriminalization law so that it mirrors Maryland's, which requires substance abuse treatment for anyone under the age of 21 who is caught possessing marijuana. Wells has said that he is willing to make the change.

But even if Harris' budget rider does become law and D.C. is prevented from implementing the decriminalization law, some lawyers have said that it might actually have broader consequences. Because of how the provision is written, they say, it might actually stop police from enforcing any marijuana laws, resulting in a de facto legalization of the drug.

Isn't full legalization next?

Maybe. There's a good chance that D.C. residents will be voting on a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in November, though don't expect Colorado-style retail sales if it passes. The initiative would merely drop all penalties for the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana by anyone over the age of 21. It would also allow residents to grow up to six plants in their homes.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) has also introduced a bill that would allow the city to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana at retail outlets, but that has yet to make its way through the legislative process.

Anything else I need to know?

According to a General Order signed by D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier outlining how officers are supposed to handle the new law, police will not be able to use the odor of marijuana, the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, the possession of marijuana containers, or possession of less than one ounce in proximity to cash or currency as a pretext for an officer to investigate any other offenses or request a search warrant. The only exception is if there is reasonable suspicion that a driver is impaired.


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