People in the District could soon only face a fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, under legislation that the D.C. Council approved on first reading today. Anyone smoking pot would have to stay indoors or risk arrest, though, according to an amendment made to the bill before the vote.
The amendment, proposed by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, removed a provision in the original bill proposed by Ward 6 Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Tommy Wells to replace the criminal penalty for smoking pot in public with a $25 fine. The current law allows for up to 180 days of incarceration and a $1,000 fine for a first offense, with penalties doubling for subsequent offenses. Mendelson’s final version of the amendment kept the criminal penalty for smoking marijuana anywhere that isn’t the smoker’s private property. LL’s waiting to hear back on how that would affect smoking in public from private property, like a porch, or smoking in a rental unit.
Mendelson’s amendment passed on a voice vote, with Wells as only the only vote against it. The decriminalization bill then passed by an identical margin, opposed only by Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander.
Mendelson’s amendment earned the support of Mayor Vince Gray and police chief Cathy Lanier. In a letter to councilmembers, Gray warned that, unamended, the bill could lead to the return of open-air drug markets.
“Those of us remember the days when open-air drug markets plagued our neighborhoods do not want to see them or the violence that all too often accompanies them return,” Gray wrote.
The Council discussion detoured for a while into a debate over how Mendelson’s amendment would affect other ways of consuming marijuana, like edibles. Mendelson claimed that police wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between space cakes and regular food.
“A police officer across the street is not going to know that somebody is eating dope-laden brownies,” Mendelson said.
Update, 5:40 p.m.: A spokeswoman for legalization-pushing Councilmember David Grosso says her boss would have voted against Mendelson’s amendment, but was away from the dais at the time.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally misstated the proposed fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. It is $25, not $100.
Marijuana photo by Shutterstock