Marijuana Legalization in DC

On Tuesday, February 4, 2014, the DC City Council approved a bill that may essentially decriminalizes marijuana possession in the nation’s capital, The proposal would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of $25. This proposal is not yet law and possession can still earn an offender 180 days in jail. If passed, this law will be different than laws that have decriminalized marijuana in other states in that the DC law will still provide that public use of is still criminal and punishable by jail time. DC and 20 states presently allow for the use of medical marijuana.

Washingtonians should not expect DC to transform overnight into a Snoop Dog dream sequence. A few key points: First, city residents need to be aware that marijuana possession is still illegal under federal law. Second, the sale of marijuana is still criminal. Third, a person's "right" to possess weed is non-existent once he drives across the bridge into Virginia. Weed is still criminal in the Commonwealth regardless of where you're from. Finally, the remaining criminal nature of public marijuana use will still allow District police officers to use the smell of burnt pot as probable cause for automobile searches or reasonable suspicion for pedestrian encounters.

Practicing criminal defense attorneys applaud the relaxation of these laws. Practitioners have noticed the racially disproportionate prosecution of pot laws in the District. Although national statistics indicate that whites use marijuana in greater numbers, D.C council member Tommy Wells asserts that "91 percent of the arrests in D.C. related to small amounts of marijuana are African-Americans." A recent ACLU study showed that blacks are eight times more likes to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. The tragic consequence of this law was that generations of young black men acquire criminal records early in their lives permanently affecting career and employment opportunities.

Marijuana use should be viewed as a public health mater like tobacco cigarettes or alcohol. Thankfully, our criminal laws are evolving in our time. I am looking forward to the new legal frontier where every client I defend is not already a convicted criminal because of a marijuana incident that occurred in his twenties.

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