By: Sonia Torrico

“Just say yes” or at least “just say ‘why not?’” may be the new campaign for the District of Columbia when it comes to marijuana after the D.C. Council voted on March 4th, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and smoking it in one’s home.

For many children of the 1980’s, the “Just say no” campaign, championed by the Reagan Administration as part of the Nation’s “War on Drugs,” is an all too familiar part of their elementary school education.  The “War on Drugs” began in the 1970’s, when President Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” in the nation.  The “War on Drugs” and the “Just say no” campaign were deemed necessary as the crack and heroin epidemic swept the nation, violence was prevalent in many major cities, and many were dying of HIV/AIDS.

The ultimate effects of the “War on Drugs” were stricter laws, enforcement, and sentencing for drug possession and distribution.  Since these laws were implemented, there have been many criticisms of the disparate enforcement in racial minority dominant communities.  For example, despite the fact that “surveys show that whites are just as likely to use illegal drugs as blacks, one out of every fourteen black men was behind bars in 2006, compared to one in 106 white men.”  The Sentencing Project, a non-profit founded to train defense lawyers and reduce the judicial system’s dependence on incarceration, notes that between 1974-2001, 60% of all people in prison were ethnic minorities and two-thirds of all people incarcerated for drug offenses were people of color.  The reason for this disproportionate incarceration is not because racial and ethnic minorities use drugs disproportionately to their white counterparts, but because police aggressively patrol inner-city neighborhoods composed of minorities more than frat parties on majority white college campuses.

Stricter enforcement of “War on Drugs” legislation damaged minority communities in itself, but became even more problematic when coupled with implementation of the “three strikes” law.  The “three strikes” law requires that state courts impose harsher, mandatory sentences on offenders who are convicted of three or more serious offenses.  The Justice Policy Institute “found that blacks have been imprisoned under the three-strikes law at 10 times the rate of whites, while the rate for Hispanics has been almost 80% greater than for whites.”  D.C., along with the federal government, is one of thirty-one jurisdictions that adopted some form of the “three strikes” law.  Accordingly, enforcement of the “three strikes” law in the “War on Drugs” has created a second class of citizens who are given life-long sentences for minor drug possession, often the results of the indiscretions of youth, and are excluded from being productive members of society.

The recent vote by the D.C. Council to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, which would now be punishable by a civil fine of $25 instead of a mandatory strike towards the “three strike” law, is an active step towards preventing the expansion of this second class of citizens.  Council Member Tommy Wells noted that passage of the bill was “a significant step to correct[ing] a continuing social injustice caused by a failed war on drugs.”  The bill also reduces the criminal penalties for smoking marijuana in public to a maximum punishment of sixty days in jail and a $500 fine, down from up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.  Further, the bill authorizes the D.C. Attorney General’s Office to handle criminal marijuana prosecutions, rather than the U.S. Attorney’s Office, thereby promoting application of the local law instead of federal law, which still holds that any possession of marijuana is a criminal offense punishable by stiff penalties and prison time.

Critics of the bill argue that this level of decriminalization will only encourage citizens to smoke marijuana, which would make it difficult for D.C. citizens to obtain jobs with the federal government, the District’s primary job provider.  This criticism is shortsighted, however, and does not take into account the hundreds of youth who will be able to remain employable by avoiding jail time over errors in judgment during their youth.  Rather than deal with the stigma that accompanies previously convicted members of our society, who have the most difficulty finding employment on a state and federal level, many youth will avoid incarceration and have more opportunities to become productive members of society.  Implementation of the bill is likely to present a challenge for federal agents in the District seeking to interpret the new law, but it is very likely to obtain Congressional approval.