Up in Smoke: Changes Coming to DC Marijuana and Cigarette Laws

A proposed bill which has garnered significant council support seeks to amend the District of Columbia Smoking Restriction Act to expand areas of the city where smoking is prohibited.  The bill, numbered B20-0095, is entitled the Smoking Restriction Amendment Act of 2013, and would ban smoking within 25 feet of parks, trails, community centers, and bus stops owned or controlled by the District.  While the DC Council voted in favor of initial approval for the ban, DC’s Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi reported that DC does not have sufficient funds to implement the law in the current 2014 through 2017 proposed budgets.

The proposed extension of the proposed smoking ban follows on the heels of 2010 legislation permitting business owners at their option to ban smoking within a 25-foot perimeter, as well as the 2006 ban on indoor smoking in public places.

Despite seeking greater restrictions on tobacco freedom, DC has finally caught up with its medical marijuana legislation and established operable dispensaries for patients in need.  Apparently, the first legal sale of marijuana occurred in DC on July 30.  While DC has now established dispensaries and certified growers, the process is, in fact, highly regulated and restricted to those patients with serious medical conditions.  At present, only nine DC citizens have obtained a medical marijuana permit.  In addition, the certification process for physicians is rigorous, and prices for the drug are purposely exorbitant to maintain the program.  Medical insurance providers are unlikely to cover the cost of such alternative prescriptions, at least any time in the near future.

In July, a majority of the DC Council sponsored a bill that would decriminalize simple possession of small amounts of marijuana.  The bill, B20-0409, was named the Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013.  The law would render possession of less than one ounce of marijuana only a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.  Advocates contend that, at the very least, the measure would remedy overpopulation issues in DC jails, as well as budget woes of the District.

The Council’s efforts follow a controversial report from the American Civil Liberties Union that ranked the District of Columbia as the top-arresting jurisdiction in the nation in 2010 for simple marijuana possession.  With the national average of arrests at 256 per 100,000 people, DC makes a hefty 846 arrests per 100,000 for mere possession.  New York followed, but not closely, with 535 arrests per 100,000 citizens.  The report also made striking findings about the rates of racial disparities among those arrested, again with DC maintaining a disappointing lead, with blacks 8.05 times more likely than whites to be arrested for mere possession.

With DC touting itself as one of the most progressive places to live in the nation, you would think its appearance in such reports would not be so momentous.  However, if this new measure lives up to its supporters’ expectations, there may be positive change.