Washington, DC has become the latest jurisdiction in the US to do away with criminal pot penalties for minor possession offenses.
As of yesterday, possessing up to one ounce of weed in DC is a non-criminal violation, punishable by a maximum penalty of a $25 fine. Possessing cannabis paraphernalia and/or engaging in the not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of pot are also decriminalized under the new law (the reduced penalties do not apply to pot use in public or to pot possession on federal property).
While several other states have similarly reduced minor marijuana possession offenses to non-criminal status, no “decriminalized’” state imposes such a nominal fine. Fines in most other states range from $100 to as high as $600 for first-time offenders.
The changes are significant. Under previous DC law, simple possession offenses were classified as a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by arrest, up to six-months incarceration, a $1,000 fine, and a criminal record. Such arrests and prosecutions in the nationals’ capitol were common. A 2013 study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union reported that the District possesses the highest percentage of marijuana possession arrests per capita in the nation. A separate 2013 study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs reported that African Americans comprised nearly 90 percent of all District drug possession arrests.
DC City Council members this spring overwhelmingly approved legislation, “The Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act,” to reduce the city’s notoriously high number of pot possession arrests. However, DC officials could not implement the measure until now because any legislation passed by the District faces a 60-day review period by members of Congress.
In recent weeks, Congressman Andrew Harris (R-MD) introduced a language to undermine the implementation of the District’s decrim policy. However, that provision remains pending in Congress and, as a result, would appear to pose no threat to the newly enacted law. Further, the Harris provision is strongly opposed by the White House.
The District’s $25.00 fine-only measure is similar to existing ‘decriminalization’ laws in California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont where private, non-medical possession of marijuana is treated as a civil, non-criminal offense.
Five additional states — Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio — treat marijuana possession offenses as a fine-only misdemeanor offense.
Three states — Alaska, Colorado, and Washington — impose no criminal or civil penalty for the private possession of small amounts of marijuana.