Caving in to pressure from Congressional overseers and the US Attorney, the DC City Council voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to make distribution of marijuana a felony subject to a maximum five-year prison term.
Under DC's municipal criminal code, all marijuana offenses had previously been misdemeanors.
Because of sentencing "reform" legislation mandated by Congress and passed by the Council the same day, anyone sent to prison on a marijuana felony will serve at least 85% of his sentence with no possibility of parole.
The bill also classifies the felony manufacture, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute marijuana as a "dangerous crime," which allows the court to hold persons charged under those provisions without bail.
On the positive side, the bill does exempt first offenders selling a half-pound or less from the felony penalties. Instead, such persons will be charged with misdemeanors and face a maximum six months in the DC jail.
Wayne Turner of ACTUP DC, who was one of the chief organizers of the District's medical marijuana initiative, saw a small measure of good news in the bill. "The good news is that the US Attorney says she won't prosecute patients; she's never said that before," said Turner. "Still, we can't take her word on it; we'll be watching carefully."
"And we still have the medical use defense here in DC," he added, "so we will be working on a patient support project so patients can get their doctors' letters of authorization and have them in hand in the case of trouble."
The bill will become law unless vetoed by Mayor Anthony Williams, but Williams is expected to sign the measure.
The Council's action came largely at the urging of US Attorneys, with added pressure from Congress. The District of Colombia is unique in that its residents can be prosecuted under either the DC municipal criminal code or under federal law. The decision to choose one or the other rests with the US Attorney's office.
In 1996, then US Attorney Eric Holder attempted and failed to persuade the Council to toughen DC marijuana laws.
In 1998, DC voters expressed their support for medical marijuana by voting more than 2-to-1 for a District medical marijuana initiative. Congress, however, has blocked the initiative from taking effect.
In 1999, current US Attorney Wilma Lewis renewed Holder's crusade. Lewis raised the specter of "marijuana violence" and argued that DC's lax laws made it a haven for marijuana peddlers.
Turner told DRCNet, "Lewis came in talking about this enormous increase in marijuana violence, but she had no numbers to back her up."
For Keith Stroup, executive director of NORML, Lewis's argument is "totally disengenuous."
"Look," Stroup told DRCNet, "The US Attorneys come running in here saying 'we can't do anything about those marijuana dealers,' but that is the opposite of the truth. The US Attorneys can prosecute any case they want under the much harsher federal laws."
"Council members were covering their asses politically with the US Attorney," said Stroup. "Our elected council cared more about the will of the US Attorney than the will of the voters."
And, Turner noted, the Council was also heeding pressure from Capitol Hill. "We had Sen. Kaye Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) sitting up there asking every day about the progress of that bill. I'm sure the Council took notice."
Opponents of the measure, including medical marijuana activists, community groups, and what Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis derisively referred to as "yuppies and buppies" testified to no avail.
National drug reform and criminal justice organizations also opposed the bill. "I testified," Stroup said, "and so did the ACLU, the Drug Policy Foundation and others."
"Even though our focus is national, we did what we could with our limited local resources," said Stroup. "We spent hours preparing testimony, and we managed to get the half-pound provision inserted, but that isn't nearly enough."
Council Member Harold Brazil introduced the bill and, as Stroup puts it, "Without Brazil carrying water for US Attorney Wilma Lewis, this never would have happened."
Turner agreed. "Brazil actually supported the medical marijuana initiative, but now he's toeing the line for Wilma."
Brazil claimed to be concerned about violence and open-air drug markets, but Stroup countered that violence and corruption are a function of the black market. "If they want to end the violence, they should legally regulate the market."
That could be difficult to do now. In the District's annual appropriation bill, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), the same man who blocked the District's medical marijuana initiative, inserted language barring any reduction in marijuana penalties by the District.
The appropriations bill is an annual bill, so that language remains in effect only until a new appropriations bill is passed. But given the makeup of the Congress, such language is likely to be reinserted.
"That's why I'm very excited about the November elections," said Turner. "I don't care who wins the White House, but ending Republican control of the Congress would really brighten our prospects here in the District."