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EDITORIAL: Decriminalize It

10/30/2013, 3 p.m.
Every year, thousands of young, primarily black men are arrested for marijuana possession and for the vast majority, that act ...

Every year, thousands of young, primarily black men are arrested for marijuana possession and for the vast majority, that act will have a tremendous impact on the course their lives take going forward.

A criminal record for even minute amounts of marijuana will block these teens and adults from being able to secure a job, hinder their ability to get an education and diminish their life prospects in ways which make little sense.

A number of studies, including one completed recently by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee find that there are widespread racial disparities in the arrests of blacks and whites in the District which skew the arrests figures in a way that is not reflective of the reality on the ground. Nine out of every 10 individuals arrested for drug offenses are black even though the numbers of black and white adults using drugs isn’t markedly different.

Local Attorney Paul Zukerberg now appears to be prescient because one of the major planks of his campaign during an unsuccessful run for an at-large council seat earlier this year was the need to reform marijuana laws. The other was creating jobs, education and other opportunities for young people.

He advocated turning possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal violation to a civil infraction. His research, Zukerberg said, indicated that criminal records are a serious impediment to young people being able to get a job and he described criminalization of marijuana use as a silent and hidden driver of unemployment in a city where background checks and security clearances are the norm, rather than the exception.

Zukerberg said the District ranks among the top cities for marijuana arrests. More than 6,000 people are arrested every year – 91 percent of those being African American – even though they use marijuana at the same rate as whites.

So it’s very encouraging to see that the D.C. City Council is moving toward decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Spearheaded by Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry and his Ward 6 colleague Tommy Wells, legislation soon to be considered would slap a $100 fine on those found holding less than an ounce of cannabis.

That would replace current law which imposes a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for possession. Mayor Vincent C. Gray supports the decriminalization effort and Barry said a substantial majority – between eight and nine council members – have co-signed the bill.

Last week Wells and Barry held a hearing at the John A. Wilson Building and also hosted a community forum in Ward 8.

Barry said he’s gratified that most city leaders are on the right side of this issue, adding that he feels vindicated for the many years he argued for decriminalization while critics scoffed. He estimates that thousands of young people will no longer be ensnared in the criminal justice system for what he describes as economic crimes.

Barry said Washington, D.C. is merely tacking in the general direction of the sea change taking place all over the country. The hysteria surrounding pot use has faded and a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana. There is a movement in a number of cities and states to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, with Philadelphia and Chicago decriminalizing weed and residents in Washington State and Colorado have voted to legalize the drug.

Legalizing marijuana is a different conversation for another day, but decriminalizing pot makes sense.

Anything that gives young people a clearer path to jobs and economic self-sufficiency, an education and better lives is a plus for everyone in this community and has our full support. We commend our city officials for allowing reason and commonsense to prevail.