With Washington arresting people for pot possession at a higher
rate than any state, a city council panel is set to mark up a bill
that would reduce penalties for possessing less than an ounce (28
grams) of marijuana to a fine as little as $25.
If the bill is passed, Washington would join 15 U.S. states and a
handful of cities, including Detroit, that have decriminalized
marijuana use, making possession a civil rather than a criminal
Decriminalization would hold down police and legal costs and reduce
"undeniable racial disparities" that see blacks far more likely than
whites to be arrested for pot, said Tommy Wells, chairman of the
Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, which will make changes to
"We have to take action to decriminalize possession of an ounce or
less of marijuana and reform our criminal justice system," Wells
said in a statement.
Passage is likely since nine of 13 council members and Mayor Vincent
Gray support the measure. Possession of any amount of marijuana in
Washington is currently a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in
jail and a $1,000 fine.
Decriminalization "turns possession into a civil violation very much
similar to a traffic ticket," said Erik Altieri, a spokesman for the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana. The
first-ever retail sales of pot for recreational use began in
Colorado at the start of the year.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came out this month in favor of
allowing the limited use of medical marijuana for seriously ill
[to top of second column]
Support for decriminalizing marijuana in the shadow of the U.S.
Capitol was boosted by an American Civil Liberties Union report
showing that blacks in Washington were eight times more likely than
non-blacks to be arrested for possession.
The June report said that in 2010 the capital had a higher pot
arrest rate than any state, at 846 arrests per 100,000 people.
Police made nearly 15 arrests a day at an estimated cost of almost
$18 million, it said.
The Washington decriminalization law could face scrutiny from
Congress, which has constitutional oversight over the capital.
But Altieri expected little resistance from Congress since lawmakers
have not tried to pre-empt similar measures in other jurisdictions.
Also, Congress tends to be more concerned with spending and budget
matters involving Washington, and the district could portray
decriminalization as a way to cut costs, he said.
A spokesman for the House of Representatives' Oversight Committee
did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.