On Wednesday, a D.C. cop who catches someone carrying a small amount of marijuana is required to launch his suspect on an onerous journey through the criminal justice system — one likely to involve handcuffs, fingerprinting and forensic analysis.
On Thursday, that same cop will face the simpler task of pulling out a ticket book and checking a box: Littering, or possession of marijuana?
A lengthy civic debate over how best to handle the most minor of drug offenses culminates at midnight Wednesday when a marijuana decriminalization law passed by the D.C. Council this spring completes a 60-day congressional review period and takes effect.
The advent of the new law, spurred by reports of stark racial disparities in marijuana arrest statistics, means a sea change in how police handle one of the most common violations they encounter. Under new orders set to take effect Thursday, police can no longer take action upon simply smelling the odor of marijuana. Nor can they demand that a person found in possession of up to one ounce produce identification.
Those found with larger amounts or caught using marijuana in public places can still be arrested and charged with a crime, but otherwise officers who catch someone carrying weed will be required to simply confiscate any visible contraband and write a ticket carrying a $25 fine.
Street cops are likely to be uneasy with the changes, said Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, even though the department has circulated a lengthy special order and created a video guide on how to make arrests.
Burton criticized the new law as too vague and confusing to officers on the street, and he said those tasked with enforcing it had little input into its formation.
“This is not a simple issue,” he said. “It’s about enforcement and decriminalization and where you draw the line of what officers can do and cannot do. Our officers are going to have to go out there and enforce a convoluted mess.”
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has said in the past that she does not believe the new law will impact officers clearing street corners or confronting suspicious people.
In a statement, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump sought to combat a misconception among District residents that possession and use of marijuana has been legalized. “This is absolutely not true,” the statement said.
The department has prepared wallet-size cards laying out key facts about the new law, and information will also be posted starting Thursday at www.mpdc.dc.gov/marijuana.