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Wells, Civil Rights Groups Push for Potent D.C. Pot Bill

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council will have a chance to pass what civil rights groups are calling the strongest marijuana decriminalization bill in the country.

The proposal, offered by Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents Capitol Hill and is also running for mayor, would prevent police officers from stopping and searching D.C. residents solely because officers smell pot. Supporters also see it as an attempt to end racial profiling.

“This bill uniquely changes the dialogue about the purpose of decriminalization and the purpose of legalization of marijuana,” said Patrice Sulton, a spokeswoman for the local chapter of the NAACP.

Rather than approaching the decriminalization under the guise of marijuana being a safe substance or as a gateway for recreational use, proponents say they want to stop selective policing of pot in the District. The bill was motivated by an American Civil Liberties Union study showing that Washington, D.C., had the highest per-capita marijuana arrest rate in the nation between 2001 and 2010, and that blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites.

“It’s our hope that what D.C. does spurs a greater interest in racial justice,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. His group joined the local chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU for personal visits to the offices of D.C. councilmembers in advance of Tuesday’s vote to try to relieve any stress surrounding pot policy changes.

Provisions to make possession of less than one ounce of pot a civil offense subject to a $25 fine, and to make smoking in public a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine, sailed through early council votes and picked up a broad coalition of support. Decriminalization also has the backing of Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration.

But certain councilmembers balked at the thought of marijuana smoke billowing from front porches and pot smokers driving under the influence, and some are drafting amendments to the bill.

“There’s a lot more to legislation of this sort than just simply saying we’re decriminalizing it, and that’s it,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Monday, after outlining concerns about enforcement of civil penalties. “We have to figure out how to make it work.”

Wells has drafted amendments to address concerns about people driving under the influence, according to his office, which may be introduced during Tuesday’s 10 a.m. meeting.

“I am concerned that some members may want to weaken the bill,” Wells told CQ Roll Call. “We have criminalized marijuana use for years. Marijuana use has not gone down. It doesn’t stop marijuana use, but it certainly criminalizes a lot of people.”

African-Americans with marijuana arrest records are less likely to find employment and may miss out on educational opportunities, Wells said, but the bill would be an “opportunity to kind of correct that injustice.”

The Metropolitan Police Department responded to some of the ACLU’s statistics on disproportionate arrests rates with a lengthy statement on its website, and called for further discussion of the issue.

The standards for probable cause for a search were a major point of contention when the council last convened on the matter.

Sulton said the NAACP hopes the bill “won’t be watered down, and that those measures that are aimed at eliminating the racial disparity won’t be eliminated from the bill and changed to a bill that’s focused on just sort of recreational use like what we see in Colorado and Washington.”

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