Washington, D.C. is a city of many disparities – of wealth, health and homeownership – but few are quite as stark as the way the city has handled its war on marijuana. Tuesday afternoon the D.C. City Council voted 10-1 to decriminalize marijuana possession, in part hoping to ameliorate the consequences of the racially discriminatory way that marijuana prohibition has been enforced.
“The people of Washington, DC, are tired of living in a city where a Black person is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite similar rates of use,” Seema Sadanandan, program director at the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, calling the move a “victory for racial justice – a crucial step towards eliminating racial profiling in the enforcement of drug laws and the disproportionate punishments suffered by people of color in this city.”
Nationally, according to a 2012 report by the ACLU, black people are almost four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates.
That may sound shocking, but in D.C. the disparity is even greater. According to the ACLU, blacks are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in the District. Slightly more than half of the population of the city was black when the study was produced, yet blacks made up more than nine out of ten arrests (91%) for marijuana possession. According to the 2010 ACLU study, the more than 5,000 arrests for marijuana possession made up nearly half (47%) of the District’s arrests for drug offenses.
While an arrest for marijuana possession might not always lead directly to jail time, as the ACLU report notes, such arrests can negatively impact “eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, employment opportunities, child custody determinations, and immigration status.” An arrest for marijuana possession can easily derail a person’s life without locking them up – particularly if they’re not wealthy.
Those numbers are part of what drove the city to join a handful of states and towns across the country to make possession of marijuana a civil offense rather than a crime. Under the bill, which was sponsored by D.C. City Council member Tommy Wells, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana will only lead to a $25 fine. Smoking in public however, will remain a crime punishable by fines and jail time, after a previous version of the bill that also decriminalized smoking met with backlash. In February, the Washington Post reported D.C. City Council Chair Phil Mendelson as saying “I do not want the public smoking of marijuana around my kid … I do not want to have to somehow rationalize to her why that’s okay … and I dare say that I’m not alone as a parent.”
Those fears of living in a city where residents are choked by clouds of marijuana smoke persuaded the council to water down the bill. That means that police in the city could still have a pretext for selective enforcement that leads to jail time, possibly even maintaining the disparities the new decriminalization regime is meant to alleviate.