Thies: Washington's War on Weed

An ACLU study based on a decade of FBI data revealed that the District leads the nation in marijuana possession arrests.

Ninety percent of the people busted for pot in the District are black.

White folks are surely smoking more than 10 percent of the weed.

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What is going on?

The answer is a racially biased application of the law.

What can be done to change things?

Council members Tommy Wells and Marion Barry say they are willing to introduce decriminalization legislation.

Talk is cheap. Let’s see it.

On Wednesday, Mayor Vince Gray’s spokesman told me the mayor “has instructed Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander to review the ACLU report and discuss it with Chief Lanier.”

That might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

Before he was a politician, Gray ran Covenant House Washington, a charity to help homeless youth and tackle “critical problems in the most challenging neighborhoods and communities.”

Gray knows the impact that drugs can have on the lives of children and young adults. He has seen it firsthand. Gray also knows the long-term, complicated problems that entry and entanglement in the legal system can create for youth and families.

I cannot read Gray’s mind, but I imagine he will not be happy to learn that his police are enforcing a law that ensnares an overwhelming percentage of African-Americans.

Is there evidence that marijuana arrests improve public safety or help to prevent people from developing serious drug habits? No.

Is there evidence that marijuana arrests negatively impact the lives of ordinary people who are not criminals? Yes.

So what can Gray do?

His police force could be ordered to halt arrests for possession. The fix is not permanent, but it buys time.

Gray could then lead where the Council has failed. He could propose specific marijuana decriminalization legislation.

Lastly, Gray would need to embark on a public relations campaign to explain his reasoning to skeptics (whose numbers merit attention but appear to be dwindling).

Some politicians worry that Congress would intervene.

In late 2012, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said, “I don’t think this is the time for the District to be discussing [marijuana decriminalization].”

When is the time? After a few thousand more people are arrested?

District politicians are always decrying the heavy hand of Congressional overlords when it comes to local spending, guns, abortion, gay marriage and other issues. It is high time for them to take a stand and join Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio and 14 other states that have stopped tarnishing lives over small amounts of pot.

Paul Zukerberg, an attorney who has specialized in marijuana law for more than 30 years, says the District should make possession a minor civil offense. Get a ticket; pay a fine. Juvenile offenders would be required to attend an education program.

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Zukerberg pointed out the extent to which a simple marijuana arrest can derail the life of a young black man. It is a sad and entirely avoidable saga that happens every day.

Zukerberg recently ran for At-Large Council. Some dismissed him as the pro-pot candidate, but that does a disservice to Zukerberg, his issue and the people whose lives are wrecked.

Zukerberg’s bid for office did not succeed, but perhaps his vision for a fairer, more humane District will be realized soon.

Chuck Thies is a political, communications and advocacy consultant. From 1998 to 2010 his portfolio included District of Columbia politics. Chuck has worked on national projects and internationally in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China and Mexico. If you are daring, follow him on Twitter: @ChuckThies.

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