Wells Introduces Legislation to Decriminalize Marijuana

July 10, 2013


(Washington, D.C.) - Today, Councilmember Tommy Wells held a press conference to announce legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the District. The announcement was made at Community Family Life Services, a nonprofit that provides housing, case management, employment counseling and other social services to returning citizens, low-income and homeless individuals and families -- a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the District's marijuana arrest policies. The bill has broad support in the Council including co-introducers: Councilmembers Barry, Grosso, McDuffie, Evans, Graham, Cheh, and Bonds and co-sponsors: Catania and Mendelson. The legislation is also supported by the ACLU and NAACP.

Click here for a copy of the "Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013": 2013_07_10_Decriminalization.pdf

"The effort to decriminalize marijuana is about removing barriers for individuals - the impact on their education, and their opportunities for employment," said Wells. "Current legal practices in the District impose a record that sticks with them for life, rather than imposing more sensible civil fines.

"Possession of less than one ounce will no longer be a permanent barrier to individuals seeking employment; those caught with less than one ounce will no longer have their driver's licenses suspended, will not be thrown out of public housing, and will not have their eligibility for public assistance revoked. They will not have their personal property subject to seizure and forfeiture simply because they are caught with less than one ounce of marijuana," said Wells.

According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the District of Columbia leads the United States in marijuana arrests. D.C. police made 846 such arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010. Nationally that number was 256 per 100,000.

"The District has a higher per capita arrest rate, greater racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests, and spends more money in marijuana enforcement than almost any other state or county in the country. We must not forget that beyond the fiscal impact this bill about communities and families that have been destabilized and peoples' lives being needlessly derailed," said ACLU-National Capital Area representative Seema Sadanandan.

The same ACLU report found that DC was among the top ten jurisdictions in the country for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

"The NAACP DC Branch strongly supports the Marijuana Decriminalization legislation introduced by Councilmember Tommy Wells.  In the District, African-Americans account for about 91% of marijuana arrests, but are currently 51% of the resident population.  Marijuana related arrests disproportionately target Black communities.  The NAACP discourages illegal drug use, but advocates for a public health approach to reduce drug abuse," said NAACP DC Branch President Akosua Tyus.

Wells added, "While Police Chief Cathy Lanier's efforts to shift MPD's focus to more pressing violent crimes is commendable, legislative action is needed to change the disproportionate and life-altering criminal penalties that have too often been imposed discriminatorily." 

"We  commend Councilmember Wells for introducing this important legislation," said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital.  "The very high rate of marijuana arrests in D.C. and their extreme racial disparity can only be addressed by decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of marijuana.  As Chief Lanier has said, the police don't make the laws, they only enforce them.  The laws therefore need to be changed so the police don't keep enforcing them in a way that ruins thousands of lives every year for no good reason.  We look forward to working with Councilmember Wells to make D.C.'s marijuana laws more just."

"DCMJ believes Councilmember Wells legislation is an important and long-awaited step in changing DC's outdated marijuana laws.  We look forward to working with him, his staff, and DC residents in making sure that arrests for small amounts of marijuana become a thing of the past," said DCMJ.org representative Nikolas Schiller.

"The introduction of this legislation by Councilmember Tommy Wells is a positive step toward putting an end to marijuana possession arrests that cause irreversible harm to people's lives, disproportionately impact communities of color, and waste public resources," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs.

"The District's current policy of arresting and prosecuting thousands of adults for marijuana possession each year is doing far more harm than good. Nobody should face life-altering criminal penalties simply for possessing a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and law enforcement officials' time and attention would be better spent addressing serious crimes. It is time to adopt a more sensible marijuana policy in our nation's capital, and that is what Councilman Wells has proposed," said Marijuana Policy Project spokesperson Morgan Fox.