Marijuana decriminalization took another step forward in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, with the City Council voting to pass a bill that would reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Per council rules, the legislation will come up for a second vote in March. After that, it would head to the desk of Mayor Vincent Gray to be signed into law.
Possession of any amount of marijuana is currently a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Under the decriminalization bill, possession of up to an ounce of the drug would be lessened to a $25 fine with no criminal penalty.
The bill’s passage might seem like a landmark policy change, but supporters of the decriminalization effort weren’t entirely happy with the proposal.
The legislation was amended on Tuesday to add harsher penalties for smoking marijuana in public. Public toking would be a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a $500 fine or up to 60 days in jail. That’s tougher than the $100 fine initially laid out in the bill.
Gray (D), who supports marijuana decriminalization, led a last-minute push to amend the legislation. The mayor voiced worries about public smoking in a letter to councilmembers.
“This legislation does not adequately address the competing interests of those residents who choose to use marijuana, and those who do not,” he wrote. “Children in our city should not have to smell or breathe secondhand smoke as they walk to school or play on a playground.”
The sponsor of the decriminalization bill, Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), thinks Gray’s position places him and his allies on “the wrong side of history.” But Wells added that he hopes to improve the bill before a second vote in March.
The biggest problem, in his view, is that the smoking ban discriminates against residents who live in public housing.
“If you’re in public housing — that’s generally a federal program — you can be evicted if you smoke pot in your unit,” he said. “If you go outside and smoke, you can be evicted if you get a drug charge… It really puts a double whammy on folks.”
The ideological split between Gray and Wells comes as both men vie for the Democratic nomination for mayor this April. Gray is a favorite in the primary, according to a January Washington Post poll.
The fight to reduce penalties around marijuana in D.C. is an outgrowth of concerns of a racial imbalance in arrests. While African Americans account for half of the city’s residents, they make up nine out of ten people arrested for marijuana possession. Government data shows whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates.
Civil-rights advocates believe the penalties around public consumption of marijuana will unfairly target those in government-subsidized housing, where a drug conviction can be devastating.
“We don’t want to discriminate against people that are a lower economic standing than everyone else,” Douglass Sloan, vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said on Tuesday. “Everyone in this city should have the same rights and privileges as everyone else.”
For the majority of D.C. councilmembers, however, concerns about smoky streets outweighed the worries about discrimination.
“My constituents don’t like seeing people publicly consume alcohol and I think it would be more reactive if it were marijuana,” said Councilmember Jim Graham (D), who represents Ward 1, a rapidly gentrifying area. “While I favor the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, I think we’ve got to begin with a conservative approach to public consumption.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.