Washington, D.C. - Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) prohibiting the District of Columbia from spending any of its locally-raised revenues to carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce criminal penalties for marijuana. The amendment is directed at a recent law the District of Columbia passed replacing jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use with a small fine.
"It is outrageous that members of Congress are trying to overturn a locally-enacted law that has the overwhelming support of D.C. voters and the D.C. Council," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. "That Rep. Harris is picking on a majority black district and no other jurisdiction with marijuana decriminalization is very telling. His own state has decriminalized marijuana but he's not interfering with it."
In 2013, a study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital found that blacks are eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in D.C. than non-blacks. In fact, in 2010, blacks constituted 91 percent of all marijuana arrests in D.C - despite the fact that data show whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates.
The "Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014" eliminates the threat of arrest for possessing marijuana and ensure that people are no longer saddled with life-long convictions that make it difficult to obtain employment and housing. Instead of arresting people, the bill would impose a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it.
This new law is viewed by D.C. lawmakers and advocates as a model for other jurisdictions looking to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. By setting a $25 fine, which is the lowest civil fine for possession among eighteen states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, D.C. lawmakers cited the need to be responsive to social factors such as homelessness in the District and high rates of poverty in D.C. Wards that have seen the greatest number of marijuana arrests.
The D.C. law takes effect in a few weeks. The amendment passed by Committee Republicans wouldn't take effect until later this year, assuming it passes the House and Senate and is signed by the president. Should this Republican-led amendment take effect later this year, it may interrupt enforcement by D.C. police officers of the civil fine and marijuana seizure provisions of the law.
"D.C. lawmakers recently decriminalized marijuana possession because the people of the District of Columbia demanded an end to the disproportionate arrest of African Americans for small amounts of marijuana," said Dr. Malik Burnett, D.C. policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "Any effort by Congress that would block D.C.'s efforts to reform its marijuana laws denies the people of the Nation's Capital the democratic right to pursue racial and social justice."