Washington D.C. Decriminalizes Marijuana In Near-Unanimous Vote

| by Jonathan Wolfe

Residents living in the jurisdiction with the nation's highest marijuana-possession arrest rate will soon have one less thing to worry about.

The Washington, D.C. city council voted yesterday to decriminalize marijuana. Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will soon be punishable with just a $25 civil fine – much like a parking ticket. The change will go into effect this summer.

The proposal, which you can read here, passed easily in a 10-1 vote. Prior to the new policy, possession of marijuana in the nation’s capital was punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and a six-month prison sentence.

In addition to decriminalizing marijuana possession, the bill eliminates penalties for possession of marijuana paraphernalia. A protective measure in the law also states that police officers are forbidden from searching or detaining someone solely based on suspicion of marijuana possession.

"This is a victory for social justice and a major step for the nation's capital,” D.C. council member Tommy Wells said. “This bill is a tremendous stride to end the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests that keep our residents from jobs, higher education and housing opportunities."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Marijuana Policy Project are among the organizations that publicly threw their support behind the bill. Here’s what MPP federal policy director Dan Riffle had to say about the new legislation.

“We should not be saddling people with criminal records simply for using a substance that is less harmful than alcohol,” Riffle said. “Law enforcement resources should be used to address serious crimes, not to arrest and prosecute adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Neither the District nor any of the states can afford to continue criminalizing adults for marijuana possession.”

An ACLU analysis of the District’s marijuana laws estimated that enforcing marijuana possession laws in the city cost taxpayers over $26.5 million a year.

The ACLU’s analysis also found that black residents account for 91 percent of the city's marijuana possession arrests despite accounting for only 50 percent of the city’s population. Though white residents and black residents were found to use marijuana at similar rates, black residents were over eight times more likely to be arrested on possession charges.

D.C. becomes the 17th jurisdiction in the country to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Mayor Vincent Gray has publicly supported the bill and said he will sign it shortly. 

Sources: Bill 20-409, WJLA, NORML,, ACLU