In Nation's Capital, Mayor Signs Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Aimed at Racial Justice

March 26, 2014 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON, DC – Today Mayor Vincent Gray of the District of Columbia signed a bill that would remove all criminal penalties from the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. The legislation would make such possession a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine and require the forfeiture of the drug and any paraphernalia connected to personal consumption or transport. This bill is the first decriminalization measure in the United States that targets racial profiling; it explicitly prohibits police from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for stopping and searching someone. It now awaits approval from Congress before becoming law.

“This historic legislation exists because DC residents and their leaders decided to change an ugly reality: Black people are stopped, searched, and arrested under marijuana prohibition far more than whites, when both groups use the drug at similar rates,” said Seema Sadanandan, Program Director at the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital.

Last July, the ACLU and the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital released The War on Marijuana in Black and White, which found that Black people in the District are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

Sadanandan continued, “I’ve talked to hundreds of people in the District’s Black and brown communities who have been stopped and searched because police officers claimed they smelled marijuana, only to find no evidence of the drug whatsoever. Children on their way home from school, parents on their way to work—marijuana odor has become the flimsy excuse for treating people of color like criminals. With this decriminalization legislation, we will take a critical step toward ending the racial profiling of entire communities.”

The ACLU report, along with research by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, helped focus the public’s attention on marijuana reform as a tool for racial justice. The District of Columbia City Council drafted and passed the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409), the legislation signed today by Mayor Gray.

The ACLU and the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital are grateful to Councilmember Tommy Wells and the other city council members for their work on this important bill.

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