Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Decriminalized in D.C

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Decriminalized in D.C

Article excerpt

Pot policy is worth considering nationwide

The District of Columbia City Council's vote last week to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession is a step that bears watching in other communities.

The hope is that D.C.'s action will create a more equitable and cost-effective drug policy -- one that avoids unnecessary arrests that disproportionately affect minorities.

According to a national report by the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at 3.7 times the rate of whites -- though rates of use are thought to be similar.

It is important to note that the District has not legalized marijuana. Instead, (like more than a dozen states) it has decriminalized low-level use. Violators caught with an ounce or less would face a $25 civil fine and forfeit the marijuana. Those caught smoking the drug in public could be jailed up to 60 days and fined $500.

The measure is not yet final because it must undergo congressional review. Some enforcement questions remain to be ironed out because marijuana possession remains illegal under federal law; parts of the District -- such as the National Mall -- are federally controlled.

To be sure, decriminalization is controversial. By easing penalties, does this send a message that marijuana use is OK? We don't want to encourage more people to use the substance recreationally. And could decriminalization thwart efforts to get rid of illegal drug markets that damage struggling neighborhoods?

But against those risks, the positive potential must be weighed. Decriminalization of minor pot possession would free up resources -- states spent $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010, the ACLU reports -- to fight more serious problems.

Decriminalization also would curb troubling practices such as racial profiling and selective enforcement.

Most important, decriminalization would mean that fewer people would suffer the life-derailing impact of an arrest record for what is a nonviolent, minor offense. …

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