DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Before long, smoking a joint in the nation’s capital might get you in even less trouble than parking on the wrong side of the street on street-cleaning day.
Ten of 13 members of the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) have endorsed a plan to make small-time marijuana possession a civil rather than a criminal offense. That means recreational cannabis users wouldn’t face arrest, charges or jail time — any of which can destroy their lives — as long as they aren’t caught with more than an ounce of the drug. Instead, they would have to pay a fine, perhaps as low as $25. (The mayor also wants criminal penalties to remain for anyone caught using it in public.)
Much of the debate over the idea has focused on an American Civil Liberties Union report that suggests that the District and many other jurisdictions enforce their anti-marijuana laws unfairly, disproportionately arresting African American suspects. On these pages, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier pushed back, insisting that factors such as a geographic concentration of tips about marijuana users, not biased policing, are responsible for the city’s arrest figures.
That debate does not need to be resolved to conclude that maintaining criminal penalties for small-time users of any race doesn’t make sense.