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Nearly half a decade after residents of Washington D.C. voted to legalize cannabis for adult-use, police in the nation’s capital will cease making marijuana consumption arrests, instead writing now-mandatory $25 civil citations.
According to the Washington Post, the new District-wide police directive was handed down from Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Peter Newsham late last week, and will significantly shift the way local cops interact with cannabis users.
For years, D.C. Metro police officers have used personal discretion when it comes to public cannabis consumption encounters, with cops authorized to either arrest and imprison a suspect or hand out a simple citation. Like statistics in New York City and metropolitan centers across the country, reports from D.C. show that cops have used that power to unfairly persecute people of color, with 9 out of every 10 D.C. marijuana arrests in 2017 targeting black or brown residents.
Under the new initiative, most people caught toking in public parks or on the sidewalk in Washington D.C. will not be placed into police custody, and will instead be made to appear at a police station for booking sometime within 15 days, at which point they can decide to either go to court and challenge the charge, or pay a $25 fine.
During a press conference announcing the new policing rules, Mayor Bowser said that ending unnecessary arrests would free up local cops to pursue more pressing crimes, and better engage with the community.
“We cherish the trust we have built between residents and the police,” Mayor Bowser said, according to the Post. “This policy will reduce the number of people who are taken into custody and allow us to better focus our efforts and resources on building a safer, stronger D.C.”
City officials in New York, Philadelphia, and other East Coast hubs have enacted similar cannabis decriminalization reforms over the past year or so, but Washington’s case is unique because unlike the Empire or Keystone State, the District has already legalized marijuana recreationally. In states like Colorado and California, public consumption has been punishable by citation for some time.
Thanks to Congressional budget restrictions barring D.C. from enacting any regulated cannabis marketplace, the capital has lagged behind its legalization counterparts on the West Coast since reform was passed in 2014. In addition to a lack of a legal retail market, the District is home to strict rules barring most renters and tourists from consuming legal weed in their home or domicile.
The new police protocol will hopefully end the unjust cycle that has pushed renters and public housing residents out of their homes to consume legal cannabis and subsequently into police custody. But despite the top-down citation mandate, District cops will still be awarded a number of loopholes to potentially continue public smoking arrests.
Outside of the new rule, police will be able to execute an arrest on someone smoking marijuana in public if they have a warrant out for another crime, cannot be positively identified, or if “police think [the suspect] will not answer the citation.” That last provision is particularly open-ended, and could potentially be used to continue arresting people perceived as homeless or otherwise disenfranchised.
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