Washington DC Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Wins Key Vote

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By Phillip Smith

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A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the nation's capital easily won a key committee vote today, and is expected to pass the full council in a matter of weeks. The bill passed the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on a 5-0 vote.

The Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013 (Council Bill 20-409) would eliminate criminal penalties and instead subject a person in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana to a civil fine. The legislation was introduced in July 2013 by Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) with the support of ten out of thirteen council members.

The council was spurred to act at least in part by reports on racial disparities in marijuana arrrests from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The ACLU, for example, found that black District residents were more than eight times more likely to be arrested than white ones, the nation's second highest disparity rate.

"Marijuana possession arrests have disproportionately criminalized African American residents and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance Office of National Affairs. "This legislation represents a critical first step toward bringing DC law into step with public opinion and common sense."

Even as the District council advances the decriminalization bill, deeper reforms are looming. Local activists filed a marijuana legalization initiative with city officials Friday. The council may also address legalization, but if it doesn't, look for the initiative campaign to pick up steam.

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