The District currently revokes the driver’s license of any person convicted of a drug offense even if a vehicle was not involved.
But now the D.C. Council, at the request of Mayor Muriel Bowser, seeks to repeal the law that calls for the automatic license revocation of those convicted of drug offenses.
The measure, colloquially known as “Smoke a Joint, Lose Your License,” originated with drug crackdown laws of the ’90s. Federal law requires a jurisdiction to suspend or revoke the driver’s license of a person convicted of a drug offense. Any jurisdiction that does not meet the revocation requirement will have eight percent of its federal transportation funds withheld.
But Bowser has found a way out.
“Every year [the mayor] certifies that we have such a law revoking the driver’s licenses of returning citizens who are convicted of drug offenses,” testified D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Director Lucinda Babers at a council hearing on the matter, Friday. “The mayor realized last year … that there was an escape hatch.”
Federal law allows jurisdictions to opt out of automatic revocation by passing a resolution that disapproves of the practice.
So Bowser urged the Council to introduce legislation that would allow the city to abandon the practice while also staying in compliance with federal laws.
Introduced in January by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at the mayor’s request, the bill will repeal the current revocation legislation for non-driving drug offenses and will not affect the city’s laws against driving under the influence.
The revocation period in D.C. currently stands at no less than six months and no more than two years. At the time of reinstatement, the resident incurs a $98 fee.
D.C. stands as one of 12 states who have not reformed their laws to remove automatic revocation.
In 2015 and 2016, 340 and 246 District residents, respectively, had their licenses revoked under the law.
Opponents say automatic revocation does not show tangible positive outcomes; rather, the practice lowers employment outcomes for those affected by the bill which tends to be low-income residents and people of color.
“We know drug enforcement is biased and results in racial disparities,” said Kaitlyn Boecker of the National Affairs on Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that drives evidence-based drug policies. “Here in the District, studies show that nine out of 10 arrests for drug offenses are African-American despite similar rates of drug use across races.”
She said research of the policy in New Jersey, where it is still active, has had disproportion effects on low-income people stating that though they only make up 16 percent of the state’s population, they account for 50 percent of people whose licenses were revoked under the policy.
She also noted that 45 percent of those drug offenders with revoked licenses reported losing their jobs or being unable to find one, and 88 percent of those who could find jobs reported a decrease in their income.
Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Council member and chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, said the current statute in the District “has ensnared” too many people for something unrelated to their driving ability.