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Washington, DC City Council Votes 10-1 to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession

The Washington, DC City Council has passed a bill that would decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana in the privacy of residents’ homes.

The Washington Post reports the City Council voted 10-1, with one abstention, to reduce punishment for possession of up to one ounce (28.35 grams) of marijuana from jail to a fine, a violation roughly equivalent to a parking ticket. The measure now heads to the desk of Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, who has said he intends to sign it into law. The US Congress, which has final say on matters involving the District of Columbia, can also reject the bill, but is unlikely to do so.

If passed, Washington, DC will join 17 US states that have decriminalized marijuana possession. Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use of the plant, which remains a Schedule I drug and, therefore illegal, at the federal level. A bill to decriminalize marijuana is currently pending in the legislature in neighboring Maryland, along with a bill to fully legalize the drug.

The DC bill stopped short of decriminalizing public smoking and other use of marijuana, the result of input from law enforcement, parents and other citizens concerned about whether the move would be good for the city.

City Councilman and bill sponsor Tommy Wells hailed the measure as a means of combating racial disparities in drug arrests. In St. Louis, Missouri, for example, blacks are 18 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

“In DC, over 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana are African American,” said Wells. “We know, with six universities, the black kids are not the only ones smoking pot. And so, first of all, it gets at a social justice issue. And then, once you do have a drug charge, you’re not going to get a job on a construction site. You’re going to have trouble with a commercial driver’s license. A lot of the jobs that are low-barrier entry jobs, you’re disqualified if you have a drug charge.”

At the federal level, US Attorney General Eric Holder last year announced a ‘smart on crime’ initiative that seeks to reduce what he called “draconian” minimum mandatory prison sentencing for some non-violent drug offenses. Holder called excessive incarceration in the War on Drugs “ineffective and unsustainable.”

Still, the Justice Department has been cracking down on state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries, especially in California, violating President Barack Obama’s 2009 promise of a “hands-off” approach to state-legal medical cannabis.

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