The Consequences of Smoking Pot in D.C. Depend on Where You’re Standing
Unless Congress objects, in July the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 will take effect in D.C. But to say that pot will be decriminalized in the District would be an oversimplification. While possession will be reduced to a $25 civil fine, you still won’t be able to walk around with a lit joint. And what happens when you stroll, fatty in hand, onto one of D.C.’s 23 national parks, even if you don’t plan to smoke there? Step onto federal land, and things become very different.
Under the new law, the smell of marijuana would no longer be probable cause for the Metropolitan Police Department to stop you. But walking around smoking pot or holding a lit joint or pipe would be a misdemeanor crime akin to drinking in public, earning you up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. “The big change is simply having it on you, or possessing it, is reduced to a civil fine,” says criminal defense attorney (and former D.C. Council candidate, running on a decriminalization platform) Paul Zukerberg, who estimates that 80 percent of his clients are charged with possession, not other marijuana-related crimes like intent to distribute. Having a prior record or more than an ounce of pot will still trigger larger fines and longer sentences, but the bill is intended to reduce arrests—an ACLU study last year showed that 91 percent of the people arrested in D.C. on marijuana charges are black, despite equal usage rates by white and black people nationally.
Walk around the corner, and yikes. Even drum circle–friendly Malcolm X Park is administered by the National Park Service. In the two states that have legalized weed, Colorado and Washington, the Park Service has made clear that on its land, federal law comes first; at a recent congressional hearing, the acting chief of the U.S. Park Police said his agency would do the same in its parks in D.C. Thus far, they’ve been pretty aggressive: Since 2009, more than 27,000 people have been cited for smoking on U.S. property, a federal misdemeanor that can net up to six months in federal prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000. The next time you’re strolling around the monuments and want to light up, maybe wait a few hundred feet: Your punishment may be many times greater if you’re caught on the feds’ land.
Josh Kramer is the editor of the Cartoon Picayune.