A bill being introduced to the Washington, D.C. city council this week aims to eliminate all criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession offenses, in hopes of altering the course of a city with the highest marijuana arrest rate in the nation.

The bill will be introduced Wednesday by Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D), who joined with Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry (D) in May to announce their intent to address the situation.

Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, which worked with Wells' office on the bill's language, explained to Raw Story that the proposal would not affect city laws dealing with people who are carrying more than an ounce of marijuana. The proposal is instead targeted at the vast majority of marijuana arrests triggered by less than one ounce of the substance.

"It makes [marijuana possession] a non-criminal offense similar to a [$100] parking ticket," Fox said. "It also makes having paraphernalia not an offense at all if you have under an ounce of marijuana on you with the paraphernalia and you're over 18. If you're under 18, it's still a $100 fine, but you also have to do a treatment program and at least four hours of group therapy within a year of your arrest."

In other words: "We're not saying we approve of marijuana," Wells told ABC News in May, "but maybe it should be more of an administrative penalty than a criminal penalty."

Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Raw Story that he understood the councilman had been interested in drug policy reform for some time, but was spurred by a recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report detailing the costs and disparities of the war on marijuana users.

Using statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the ACLU was able to determine that Washington, D.C. has the highest marijuana possession arrest rate of any city in the country: 846 out of every 100,000 people there were arrested for marijuana in 2010, whereas the national marijuana arrest rate was just 256 per 100,000 people. New York City had the second-highest rate at 535 arrests out of every 100,000 people.

The study also found what Smith called an "appalling" and "unacceptable" racial disparity: African-Americans are more than eight times as likely to be arrested as whites in Washington, D.C., whereas whites and blacks are just as likely to be carrying drugs. That slanted enforcement led to blacks comprising 91 percent of the marijuana possession arrests in D.C. during 2010, the ACLU found. A spokesperson for the group did not respond to a request for comment.

That skew is also a significant contributing factor to widespread poverty among minority communities, Smith explained. "We've seen thousands of district residents getting bogged down by a criminal record, crippled by a criminal record, that keeps them from taking care of their families, from getting good jobs," he said. "Even for something as minor as marijuana possession on their record. That's one of the underlying motivations for the council, to address this as a way to improve people's lives who've been impacted by an arrest record needlessly."

Messages left with Wells' and Barry's offices were not returned by the time of publication.

"I think it stands a very good chance of passing the council,"  Fox said. "I believe that a majority of the council already expressed at least tepid approval. If it doesn't work, then advocates in the district, including MPP and other groups, are prepared to take the issue to the voters."

If that ends up being where this issue goes, there's good reason to believe Washington, D.C. is headed for decriminalization one way or another: a survey earlier this year (PDF) by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling group found that 75 percent of D.C. voters support making possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a non-criminal offense.

Still, the proposal is not without its critics. In a statement distributed on a community listserv Wednesday, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy L. Lanier said that the matter merits debate, but took exception with the ACLU's findings, saying "some of the information being used as an argument for decriminalization is flawed."

"As I believe our community members know, MPD has not prioritized marijuana arrests. Since day one, my priority has been combatting violent crime, and the District is safer as a result," she insisted. "Marijuana users are simply not being targeted in the manner suggested by a recent report from the ACLU and by many advocates for decriminalization."


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