Washington, D.C., residents live a tale of two cities when it comes to cannabis enforcement. Yes, marijuana is legal in the nation’s capital—but only on the 71 percent of lands subject to District Law. The remaining 29 percent of D.C. falls under federal law, and the federal government has repeatedly blocked the District from setting up a regulated retail program while consistently making efforts to decriminalize cannabis difficult. As a result, arrests for marijuana use have gone up since 2015, despite legalization. But a shift in D.C. policing policy should dramatically reduce arrests. On Friday, D.C. police announced that in most cases, they’ll issue citations for cannabis consumption rather than make an arrest.
For Most in D.C., Public Cannabis Consumption Won’t Lead to an Arrest
Voters in Washington, D.C. fully legalized cannabis for adult use in 2014. But the reality on the ground more closely resembles a decriminalized city rather than one with legal cannabis. Despite having its own municipal government, D.C. politics are shackled to the whims of the federal government. And Capitol Republicans have many times undermined, slowed, or outright blocked efforts first, to decriminalize and legalize cannabis, and having failing that, to establish a retail market.
Today, cannabis is legal in D.C. Anyone over 21-years-old can possess up to two ounces of flower, grow up to three mature and three immature plants in a private residence, and transfer (“gift”) up to one ounce to other of-age individuals. Even bongs, bowls, blunts, vapes, and other paraphernalia are legal. The sale, purchase, and public consumption of marijuana remains prohibited, however.
Since 2015, when the law took effect, arrests for marijuana possession plummeted. But arrest for public cannabis consumption doubled between 2015 and 2016 to 282, and only dropped off slightly in 2017 to 266. Some attribute the rising arrest rate for public-use to confusion about what the law actually permits. Others say a proliferation of pop-up events with cannabis product vendors are to blame.
Then there’s the overwhelming racial disparity of public marijuana consumption arrests. Black people comprised 86 percent of those arrested by D.C. police for smoking weed in public. Racial disparities like these have prompted District Attorneys in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and other cities to decline to prosecute misdemeanor cannabis violations like public consumption. And increasingly, NYPD chiefs are directing officers to cite misdemeanor cannabis offenses rather than arrest. These concerns, along with a string of high-profile incidents of excessive force by D.C. police that led to public outcry, are motivating the new D.C. policy.
Everything You Need to Know About the New D.C. Policy
In Washington, D.C., police have had the option of citing rather than arresting for several years. Friday’s policy change, however, is the first time it has become standard practice.
Now, instead of arresting someone alleged to have consumed cannabis in public, police will issue a citation. The citation is in many ways like a ticket for a moving violation. Suspects will have 15-days to appear at their local precinct. There, they can pay a $25 fine or fight the charge in court.
There are important exceptions to the new policy, however. In the first place, it’s not in effect on any of the District lands the federal government controls. This includes all national parks and military property, about 29 percent of the total land area in D.C. The policy also has nothing to do with federal law enforcement agencies like Park Police or Secret Service. These agencies will still follow federal law on cannabis.
Police still have the discretion to arrest someone they suspect of public cannabis consumption. Minors, anyone with an open warrant or pending charge, anyone who refuses to identify themselves, or anyone doing anything else illegal will still face arrest, said the D.C. police in a statement. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes the policy shift can begin to repair broken relationships between the city’s black residents and the police.