The District is getting a little friendlier for recreational pot smokers — emphasis on a little. Yesterday, the D.C. Council passed a bill that — once it's signed by Mayor Vincent Gray and subjected to 60 days of congressional review — will decriminalize marijuana possession and use in the privacy of your own home. But, hang on: We're not in Colorado yet. While the penalties will be diminished from criminal to civil (think fines instead of jail time), marijuana use is still fairly restricted in D.C. Under the law, if you're carrying an ounce or less of marijuana, you're risking a $25 fine. If you smoke in public, the punishment jumps to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. You'll also want to steer clear of the National Mall and other federal landmarks, where federal laws apply.
It's worth noting that, here in Washington, the decriminalization debate has taken a civil-rights slant, as opposed to the civil-liberties argument that has played out in 17 other states that have taken steps toward decriminalization. The Washington Post quotes council member Tommy Wells as stating, "In D.C., there are more than 5,000 arrests per year for marijuana; 90% are African American. One drug charge can change a life forever. Our action...does not repeal all negative impacts caused by criminalization of marijuana, but it moves us in the right direction.”
What Wells didn't explain is whether those arrests were for the relatively minor violations that would be impacted by the new law, such as possessing or using marijuana on your own property, or for more serious offenses, such as distribution. While we can appreciate the sentiment — a person's life shouldn't be ruined by an ounce of marijuana — if the majority of arrests are for serious crimes, it's doubtful that lighter penalties for minor infractions will make much of a difference.