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D.C. Considers ‘Paradigm Shift’ on Pot

While members of Congress slowly begin to modify their approach to marijuana, the D.C. Council is delving into the minutiae of decriminalizing pot in the nation’s capital.

If a police officer manning a sobriety checkpoint is overwhelmed by the smell of burnt marijuana when approaching a vehicle, should the driver be subjected to a search?

Under a broadly supported proposal from Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, the answer would be “no.” Neither the odor of marijuana nor possession of less than an ounce of pot would constitute reasonable suspicion of a crime and grounds for a search.

“If someone just smells marijuana on you, it’s not a reason to now frisk you,” Wells said during a Thursday council meeting; he represents Capitol Hill and is currently campaigning for mayor. His bill would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil violation subject to a $25 fine, and would make smoking in public a civil violation punishable with a $100 fine.

“It’s a shift. It’s definitely a paradigm shift,” Wells said.

Ten councilmembers, including Wells, have expressed support for the bill, which is similar to pot possession laws in California. Mayor Vincent Gray, currently running for re-election, has also indicated he could support decriminalization, and the D.C. Attorney General’s office has not objected to the legislation.

Questions raised Thursday centered around driving under the influence (smoking behind the wheel would still be a crime), how to hold violators accountable and whether a $25 fine, comparable to a parking or jaywalking ticket, is enough of a penalty to make clear that the city does not condone marijuana use.

The street value for an ounce of marijuana is between $400 and $500, Councilmember Yvette Alexander reminded her colleagues. She suggested the fine should increase based on how much a person is in possession of, similar to the way fines for moving violations increase depending on how much over the speed limit a driver goes.

Councilmember Muriel Bowser, another mayoral contender, worried that decriminalizing the drug without giving users a legal route to buy it creates an “incentive to have open-air and illegal drug sales.”

A ballot initiative recently submitted by supporters of pot legalization would solve that problem by allowing D.C. residents 21 and older to grow up to three cannabis plants at home for personal use.

Wells’ bill would not go that far, but he said he wants to stop draining the city’s resources on arrests for and processing of minor pot offenses. The District has higher marijuana arrest rates than Los Angeles, Miami or Philadelphia, proponents say, and black residents are disproportionately affected, accounting for 90 percent of all pot arrests.

“Criminalization of marijuana does not work,” Wells said, framing the measure as a move toward social justice.

The council has postponed consideration until next month. Councilmembers may craft amendments in the meantime.

If approved and signed by Gray, the measure would be subject to a 60-day congressional review period. Congress has in the past used policy riders on District appropriations to shape local drug laws, but with prominent leaders evolving on the issue, reaction is hard to predict.

The U.S. Attorney’s office, the criminal prosecutor for the District, has not made a public statement on the proposal. Decriminalization could also pose an interesting legal dilemma on the Capitol campus, where the Capitol Police have the authority to enforce both D.C. Code and U.S. Code.

The council plans to take up pot policy during its Feb. 4 meeting.

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