The District of Columbia is joining a growing number of states and cities which are reversing their positions with regards to marijuana use.
The majority of the D.C. Council, as well as the mayor, have coalesced around the issue of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. And there are several bills submitted for consideration by members of the legislative body that would decriminalize the possession of one ounce of cannabis or less.
"I worked awful hard to keep hundreds of thousands of young black men out of jail," Ward 8 Council member Marion S. Barry said during an interview Monday evening. "They are getting records for selling marijuana when their real crime is an economic crime. It's no different than burglary or robbery. Give people jobs. They can make more money selling weed but if given an opportunity, a significant number of young people will take the opportunity to hold a job. I saw that 12 years ago at Benning Terrace."
Barry, 77, said the move by the council mirrors what's happening elsewhere in the country.
"The mood of the country is changing drastically. About 100 million Americans have used marijuana. The whole climate has changed. I said that we needed to decriminalize more than 10 years ago."
Barry and Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells drafted the bill which would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a $100 fine. The legislation would replace current law that imposes six month of jail time and a $1,000 fine on anyone caught with the drug in their possession.
Barry, a four-time mayor of the city who is in his second term as a council member, said he expects smooth sailing for the bill because six other council members have signed on as co-sponsors. They are Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), David Grosso (I-At-Large), and Anita Bonds (D-At-Large).
Wells, 56, chairman of the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, said the issue is one of fairness and social justice.
"Ninety percent of the arrests in Washington, D.C. for criminal possession of marijuana are African American, when we are a city that is only about 48-49 percent African American," Wells said during a recent interview on CNN. "The over-criminalization of African-American youth is so much due to the criminalization of marijuana. And to what end? It means that you are much less likely to be able to get a job, go to school, or get housing, and that just doesn't make sense."
Two studies released this year bear Wells and Barry out. In July, the Washington Lawyers' Committee published findings of a report that said although blacks now comprise less than 50 percent of the District's population, nine out of 10 people arrested on drug possession charges are African American. Meanwhile, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union said that the city is arresting more people than ever before for marijuana possession, with African Americans accounting for the bulk of the numbers.