Recently in Drug Charges Category

January 27, 2014

Burrage v. United States - Drug Overdose Penalties Addressed by SCOTUS

Back in 1986, America was in a "War on Drugs." It was in this culture that harsh mandatory sentencing provisions were adopted that allowed an illegal drug dealer whose client had died from an overdose to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison.
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For years, D.C. drug defense lawyers faced an uphill battle, as all prosecutors had to show was that the illegal drug was a contributing cause of the death - not the sole or even primary cause.

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent 9-0 decision in Burrage v. United States changes all that, creating a higher standard of proof and stripping the mandatory minimum requirements.

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January 14, 2014

U.S. v. Thomas - D.C. Drug Convictions Challenged

Prosecutions arising from drug arrests in D.C. can be incredibly complex, as we saw with the D.C. appellate court's recent review ofUnited States v. Thomas. Defendants must be assured the legal team representing their interests is prepared to meet the challenges. disappointedman.jpg

This case involved an alleged scheme of narcotics distribution uncovered by undercover agents and informants that resulted in eight indictments, two trials and numerous life sentences. These convictions were later challenged in an aggressive appeal alleging improper admission of evidence, a tainted jury and sentencing errors.

On some of these matters, the defendants emerged triumphant.

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December 20, 2013

Some D.C. Marijuana Convictions May be Sealed by Council Vote

D.C. Council is weighing a measure that would effectively seal the criminal records of thousands convicted of marijuana possession - assuming the arrest did not involve any violence. cannabis.jpg

D.C. criminal defense attorneys know that although a hearing on the matter is slated to be held before the end of the year, it may be longer before a formal decision is reached. Consider that it was nearly a decade from the time the district approved the legalization of medicinal marijuana and the time the first dispensary opened its doors.

Still, the move is encouraging, specifically as it stands in conjunction with a bill backed by Mayor Vincent Gray to decriminalize marijuana possession in the district. That measure too has yet to come up for a vote. Councilmember David Grosso has been quoted as saying that decriminalization without some additional measure to aid those with prior convictions would be unfair.

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December 8, 2013

Murder Defense in Drug Death Cases: SCOTUS to Weigh In

With alarming frequency, individuals are being arrested on murder charges after selling or supplying drugs to individuals who later suffered a fatal overdose. drugs1.jpg

The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard oral arguments in the case of Burrage v. United States, where an accused drug dealer is on the hook for a death that occurred after the dealer sold the user heroin.

D.C. criminal defense attorneys know that courts have well established that a murder charge can be appropriate when a person provides drugs to another person who then dies as a result of consumption - even when that consumption is voluntary.

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December 1, 2013

Congressman Charged with Misdemeanor Cocaine Possession

Like marijuana, cocaine is a common street or party drug that may be used at clubs, bars, and other events. As we have seen throughout the Washington D.C. area, an involvement in law or politics does not make drug use any less likely. In a high-profile case, Florida representative Henry 'Trey' Radel pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession last month. According to reports, the 37-year-old Tea Party Republican from Florida was charged after a "buy and bust" operation.

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Drug charges can carry serious penalties upon conviction. Even a misdemeanor offense could result in significant fines, jail time, and a damaging criminal record. Our Washington D.C. drug crimes defense attorneys understand the serious nature of these charges and will every potential defense opportunity. We also know that anyone can be involved or caught up in a drug crime allegation. It is important to work with an experienced advocate who can protect your rights, your record, and your reputation.

Police alleged that Radel was in possession of cocaine. He was arrested after a Drug Enforcement Agent claimed that he bought cocaine from an undercover agent. Federal authorities later showed up at his house and told him that he was being charged with a crime related to the undercover sale. In any case involving undercover agents, defendants should seek out legal defense as soon as possible. Remember that your 4th Amendment rights may have been violated during the sting operation, search or seizure of property. An experienced advocate working on your behalf can prevent any illegally obtained evidence from being presented in court.

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November 6, 2013

Reports: D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Likely

It appears that possession of small amounts of marijuana in D.C. may soon be decriminalized, with ten members of council as well as D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) endorsing a measure that would make it a civil rather than criminal offense.
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As such, D.C. marijuana lawyers understand that defendants would get in less trouble than if they had parked on the wrong side of the street during a scheduled street-cleaning day.

Recreational marijuana users caught with less than one ounce of the drug would be faced with neither arrest nor jail time. The fine might even be as low as $25 and probably no more than $100. Public use would still be considered a crime, but any sort of action that might have a serious impact on one's life or livelihood would essentially be eliminated.

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September 9, 2013

"Molly" Arrests on the Rise as Deaths Continue to Mount

Police in Fairfax, VA report they have seized some 17 pounds of the club drug "molly" that has been linked to numerous deaths of concert and rave goers in the Northeast - including the recent death of a University of Virginia student.
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"Molly" is billed a purified form of the drug ecstasy, though officials warn the exact chemical makeup of the drug is often unverifiable, as it originates in underground laboratories in China and Europe. It's been linked to a string of overdoses and deaths in both Boston and New York over the summer.

The Washington Post reports that authorities in Fairfax have handled some 170 cases involving the drug between the beginning of 2012 and August of 2013. During that time frame, the unit says it has seized some 3,000 pills intended for street use.

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August 26, 2013

D.C. Drug Case Among First to Follow Holder's Reduced Sentence Directive

Less than a week after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a directive to federal prosecutors to omit specifications of drug amounts that could trigger minimum mandatory sentences in low-level criminal cases, a defendant out of D.C. became one of the first to benefit.

D.C. drug crime defense attorneys were eager to see how Holder's mandate would play out on a practical level.
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According to The Washington Post, the 33-year-old defendant was initially arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. He had allegedly been trafficking the drug from Georgia to Virginia, prompting the case to be handled at the federal level.

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August 18, 2013

U.S. Attorney General: Reduce Drug Sentences for Minor Offenders

In what many hail as a major about-face in the failed War on Drugs, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder conceded that far too many people are incarcerated for long sentences for non-violent, low-level drug crimes.

He added that the racial disparity of these sentences is blatant and "shameful," and he outlined a list of policies urging federal prosecutors to ease their tenacity in pursuing minimum mandatory sentencing for these defendants. drugs.jpg

D.C. criminal defense attorneys
were pleased by Holder's announcement of a shift in priorities. However, we are skeptical that much is going to change in the immediate future.

For one thing, the directives he gave were to federal prosecutors and with the express purpose of reducing federal prison rosters. Surely, this will have some impact. However, it's not going to be major.

There are an estimated 2 million people in this country who are locked up (accounting for 40 percent of the prisoners worldwide, despite the fact that the U.S. only boasts 5 percent of the world's population). Of those 2 million, many are there as a result of drug-related crimes. However, only about 10 percent are in federal prison. Of those, about one-quarter, or roughly 90,000, are there for drug offenses.

The policy change Holder announced was with regard to low-level drug offenders. For example, those who are charged with misdemeanors or those with no ties to violent drug traffickers, cartels or gangs. However, most of these offenders aren't going to be prosecuted in federal court anyway.

It's the state-level (and in D.C., the District-level) courts and prisons where we need to see meaningful reform.

Holder rightly pointed out that stringent minimum mandatory sentencing has robbed judges of their rightful discretion in these cases, and has led to a federal inmate population that has soared by 800 percent in the last 33 years. That's a rate that is far faster than the growth of the U.S. population.

Mandatory minimum sentencing, Holder says, costs the U.S. an estimated $80 billion each year. He said this means that federal prosecutors can't - and shouldn't - bring every case or charge every defendant who is accused of violating federal law. Some issues, he said, must be handled at the local or state level.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that those accused are going to get a lesser sentence. Most states have minimum mandatory sentences for drug crimes as well.

In Maryland, for example, a person who has twice been arrested for distribution or manufacture of drugs faces a minimum of two years in prison, with a maximum of five years in prison. However, for crimes involving certain drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, LSD or PCP, the maximum is raised to 20 years. A third offense carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years behind bars.

A number of states, including Maine, Delaware and Connecticut, have begun to roll back their policies on mandatory minimum sentences, but we still have a long way to go.

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August 16, 2013

Drug Investigations Under Fire in National DEA Probe

D.C. criminal defense attorneys know that when it comes to the evidence used against you in court, the way it is collected is sometimes even more important than the substance itself.
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There are very specific laws regarding when an officer is justified with reasonable suspicion and probable cause and when a warrant has to be obtained. Full disclosure by law enforcement and prosecutors of how the evidence came to light and was collected is mandated by the courts, and it's also potentially a critical link for your defense team.

All of this is why the latest revelation regarding a super-secret division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. It came to light following outrage over the National Security Agency's amassing of phone records of millions of Americans, purportedly under the guise of national security protection. Such information was collected without probable cause or warrants.

The DEA operation was a bit different. Reuters reports that the Special Operations Division, which has a goal of aiding the DEA and other law enforcement agencies in their investigations of drug dealers and money launderers, has been forwarding tips gleaned from NSA intercepts, wiretaps by foreign governments, federal databases and domestic wiretaps.

Here is the first problem with this: The NSA collects information for purposes of protecting national security. However, the tips that are taken from the SOD and reportedly forwarded to federal and local law enforcement agencies have nothing to do with national security. They are instead used to prosecute those suspected of domestic crimes - primarily drug offenses, and not all of them even felonies.

Here is the second problem: Documents obtained by Reuters reveals that the DEA has been instructing lower-level law enforcement agencies on how to "recreate" an investigative trail, so that the SOD's involvement would be concealed. This is a major issue because if defense lawyers don't know how evidence was obtained, they can't objectively review it for evidence that might be exculpatory, or subject to suppression. Such evidence might reveal things like biases or entrapment. If a defense lawyer can prove these elements, it could result in the case being dismissed altogether.

Of course, they can't do that if they never know about it.

It doesn't appear that prosecutors or judges are aware this is happening either, but it nonetheless potentially violates a defendant's constitutional rights.

DEA officials who oversee the SOD insist that the information they send to law enforcement is obtained though legal means, including court order and subpoena. They say Congress has been aware of and even briefed on the program, though an agency spokesman wasn't sure if legislators were specifically aware of the way tips were being used to prosecute domestic criminal cases.

The SOD is comprised of some two dozen partner agencies, including the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was founded back in the mid-1990s as a way to combat Latin American drug cartels.

Today, it appears the investigations are much more focused on domestic crimes, though its specific functions are kept top-secret.

Those who had prior involvement with the agency explained that an SOD tip would work like this:

SOD officials would call up local law enforcement and tell them to be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle. State police would comply, find an excuse to stop that vehicle and then have a drug dog do a sniff and conduct a full search.

Former DEA officials speaking on the condition of anonymity defended the practice of having a law enforcement agency "recreate" the method of discovery, which is also known as "parallel construction," saying it's been done for years by drug enforcement authorities all over the country.

While some argue it could be legal in terms of establishing probable cause, the act of concealing it as a means of hiding how they got the information in the first place is likely a violation of pretrial discovery rules.

As one legal scholar exclaimed, it's not only alarming but "pretty blatantly unconstitutional."

It's a positive thing that these matters are now coming to light. It's important if you have been arrested for a drug-related crime that you immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Continue reading "Drug Investigations Under Fire in National DEA Probe" »

August 6, 2013

D.C. Marijuana Arrests Highest Per Capita in Nation as First Dispensary Opens

Just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, the first legal marijuana sales are now underway, with a total of nine patients in D.C. authorized to purchase the drug for medicinal purposes.

Seven of those individuals are authorized to buy two ounces every month.
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The district's first dispensary, Capital City Care, opens some 15 years after 70 percent of the voters here authorized a measure allowing the drug to be provided for patients with a prescription.

Our D.C. marijuana defense lawyers understand that the opening comes on the heels of a report finding that D.C. leads the nation in terms of arrests for marijuana possession per capita.

In 2010, D.C. police made 846 marijuana possession arrests per 100,000 residents. The national rate is 256 per 100,000 - making a marijuana possession arrest 3.3 times more likely here in D.C. than in the country as a whole.

The information was revealed in a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose primary focus was to highlight racial disparities with regard to marijuana arrests. Across the country, blacks were nearly 4 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, despite the fact that usage rates are about the same.

However, in D.C., that disparity is much more pronounced in D.C., where blacks are 8.05 times more likely to be arrested than whites for possession of marijuana. This skew is viewed as a significant contributing factor to widespread poverty among minority communities, as a marijuana arrest can affect a person's ability to secure a good job or federal financial aid for higher education.

Maryland has the fourth-highest rate in the country for marijuana possession arrests, with 409 per 100,000 residents. It follows D.C., New York and Nebraska.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier insists that marijuana arrests are not a priority. Rather, she says, the emphasis on policing is on violent crimes.

In the wake of all this information, two Democratic D.C. councilmen - Tommy Wells and Marion Berry - have introduced a bill, which was partially drafted by the Marijuana Policy Project, that would decriminalize minor marijuana arrests in the District.

In effect, it would make marijuana possession a non-criminal offense that would be similar to a $100 parking ticket. It would also decriminalize possession of marijuana paraphernalia, assuming you have less than one ounce of marijuana on you at the time of the arrest and you are over 18. However, if you are under the age of 18, possession of marijuana paraphernalia would still be met with a $100 fine.

Juveniles would also have to undergo a four-hour group treatment therapy session within one year of their arrest.

As Wells put it, it's not an approval of recreational marijuana use as much as it is a shift in approach. An administrative penalty, he said, could ultimately be more effective and less damaging than continuing to slap people with criminal sanctions and permanent criminal records.

There is good reason to believe the measure could pass. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Public Policy Polling Group found that three-fourths of D.C. voters favor decriminalization of less than one ounce of marijuana.

Simple possession of the drug is currently considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, per D.C. Code 48-904.01. A subsequent offense could be punished by double that.

Continue reading "D.C. Marijuana Arrests Highest Per Capita in Nation as First Dispensary Opens" »

July 20, 2013

Vast Racial Disparities in D.C. Drug Arrests, Two Studies Say

Two different studies have pointed to the fact that not only are drug arrests in D.C. high, but there is strong evidence to suggest that racial biases play a significant role in who is arrested.
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Our D.C. criminal defense lawyers were troubled by these study results, though we aren't especially surprised. It's long been documented that blacks comprise the majority of the prison population and the NAACP reports that one out of every three black males today can expect to spend at least some time in prison during his life.

The majority of those who are serving time are there for some drug-related offense.

The first study was conducted by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Researchers analyzed D.C. arrest statistics between 2009 and 2011. What they found was that 8 out of every 10 adults arrested in the District are black. Nine out of 10 people arrested on simple drug possession charges are black, as are eight out of 10 who are charged with disorderly conduct.

Compare this to the city's racial make-up, which is comprised of 47 percent black residents and 43 percent white.

Put another way, in 2010, the District arrested 30 percent of its black adult male population, compared to 2 percent of its white residents.

Police have argued that such studies are unfair because they fail to account for the fact that black areas of the District tend to have higher crime rates. For example, the area in Anacostia River, which accounted for almost half of the District's 88 murders in 2012, is a predominately black neighborhood. It's the same area where roughly 40 percent of the city's violent crime took place last year.

However, that doesn't explain the hugely disproportionate figures that we see with regard to drug-related arrests.

The second study, conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, found that the District saw a 60 percent rise in arrests for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010. The vast majority of those arrested (91 percent) were black.

In fact, the rate of black arrests for marijuana possession in D.C. was among the highest in the nation, ranking No. 3 with 1,489 arrests per 100,000 population. Compare this to the white arrest rate for marijuana possession in D.C., which was 185 per 100,000.

Despite all of this, police say they haven't made marijuana arrests a high priority. Rather, they contend, they are simply responding to requests from within communities by those who want order restored in neighborhoods considered long-neglected.

We certainly understand that people want to feel safe in their neighborhoods. However, effectively criminalizing a third of the adult black male population by hounding them with arrests for petty drug crimes hardly seems like the solution that black leaders have in mind.

On the bright side, the D.C. Council is set to consider decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana within the District. A bill that would accomplish this was introduced by Council member Tommy Wells, with nine of his 12 colleagues signing on as co-sponsors.

While the District has allowed for the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, possession for any sort of recreational purpose is still considered a crime. This measure would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense, which would mean offenders wouldn't receive any jail time and instead would receive, at most, a $100 fine.

Continue reading "Vast Racial Disparities in D.C. Drug Arrests, Two Studies Say" »

July 6, 2013

State High Court: Sniff Test Fails to Impress

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement's use of a drug-sniffing dog near a residence constitutes a search that could violate the Fourth Amendment if done without first obtaining a warrant.
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Now, the California Supreme Court has ruled that an officer's detection of drugs via his own sense of smell might be enough to justify seizure of private property, such as a mailed package, but it is not enough to justify the search, without first obtaining a warrant.

Our D.C. drug defense lawyers know that while this ruling only directly affects those in California, it sets a strong precedence and pushes back against a large number of cases in which officers are searching first and then asking questions about the validity of those searches later.

Another prime example of this was the Missouri DUI case in which an officer had blood forcibly drawn against a DUI suspect's will without a warrant, saying that while he could have obtained one, he didn't think it was necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court, finding that such practices are among the most invasive and that a blood draw unquestionably amounts to a search, and therefore requires a warrant.

A warrant is a legal document issued by either a judge or magistrate that authorizes law enforcement to search a person, location or vehicle for evidence of a crime and to then confiscate that evidence, if found. There are few exceptions to this - for good reason - but primarily the purpose is to ensure that a person's Fourth Amendment rights are not violated by offering some transparency in the process. The absence of a warrant prior to a non-consented search should always be questioned by your defense lawyer.

The California case strikes at the heart of this, striking down a prosecutor's argument that the warrantless search of a private package was allowed under a "plain smell" test exception, an attempt to stretch the "plain sight" test exception.

Generally, police are allowed to seize evidence they notice in plain site. So if you are pulled over in a traffic stop and the officer notices a bag of marijuana on the passenger seat, he is allowed to seize that. However, the smell of marijuana would not be enough to conduct a warrantless search.

In this case, a FedEx employee contacted police when detecting a strong odor of marijuana in a package that was destined for out-of-state. An officer arrived on scene and he too noted the strong odor of marijuana coming from the package. He seized the package and took it back to headquarters, where his supervisor also confirmed the smell and gave the Ok for narcotics detectives to conduct a search. The detectives located marijuana inside and the defendant was ultimately arrested and convicted.

However, he appealed on the grounds that police never had any right to search the package without a warrant.

The case ultimately made it all the way to the state supreme court, which ultimately agreed with the defense. Without evidence obtained in that search, prosecutors had no case, and the conviction was tossed.

Continue reading "State High Court: Sniff Test Fails to Impress" »

May 29, 2013

Nurse Arrested for Theft of Painkillers at Alexandria Rehab

A nurse working in Virginia is facing federal charges after officials say she stole medications from her employer and then attempted to sell them on the streets.
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Our D.C. drug crime defense lawyers know that cases like this are not as rare as one might think.

Registered nurses go through intensive training to work long hours, sometimes during odd shifts, and the schedule often precipitates addiction.

The American Nurses Association estimates that about 1 out of every 10 nurses are dependent on drugs. This is roughly in line with the national average. However, nurses are in closer proximity to a smorgasbord of high-powered substances every time they go to work. The temptation often proves too difficult for someone battling an addiction to overcome. Nurses who work in specialty areas - critical care, oncology, psychiatry and anesthesia - are believed to have higher rates of substance abuse due to the intense physical and emotional demands, as well as the easy accessibility of controlled substances.

No mention of addiction is made in the Washington Post article about the Gainesville Health & Rehabilitation Center nurse who is accused of stealing the painkillers, though it's an obvious inference.

According to reports, the 42-year-old is alleged to have placed orders for Percocet and Oxycodone for her patients. The charts of those patients would show that the drugs had been administered. However, her patients would later complain to other staffers that they had never received their medications.

Administrators began to spot a pattern and allege such reports were only being made while she was on duty.

Other employees began to maintain separate records, due to these suspicions. In all, authorities say that some 315 Oxycodone pills and 435 Percocet pills went missing while under her watch over the summer of last year.

A single pill can be sold on the street for anywhere from $40 to $80.

She was subsequently arrested and later indicted on one count of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance.

However, the nurse's defense attorney slammed the prosecution's case, saying it has significant holes in it. The government has the duty to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, she said, adding, "All I'm seeing is doubt."

The attorney couldn't elaborate on the specifics, but said said her client intends to fight the charges.

The nurse has since quit her position at the facility.

Nurses who are arrested for drug crimes, particularly when those alleged actions somehow involve the workplace, are at risk not only for criminal prosecution and the potential loss of a job, but also sanctions from the D.C. Department of Health's Board of Nursing. The board regulates the practices of registered nurses, practical nurses and advanced practiced registered nurses (including midwives, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioners and trained medical employees). Sanctions might include suspension or even revocation of one's nursing license, and therefore the inability to practice nursing.

For these individuals, a strong defense becomes all the more critical.

Continue reading "Nurse Arrested for Theft of Painkillers at Alexandria Rehab" »

May 26, 2013

D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Bill on the Horizon

Following the recent passage of marijuana decriminalization measures in Washington state and Colorado, there has been a great deal of buzz about the introduction of a similar voter-sponsored initiative in D.C.
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As our D.C. marijuana defense lawyers' understand it, two D.C. Council members are contemplating the formulation of their own decriminalization measure, so that they can wrangle more control over the issue from outside groups.

D.C. does allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for patients who legally possess a valid, physician-provided prescription.

However outside of that, the D.C. Code 48-904.01 holds that a person who is found to be in possession of small amounts of marijuana may be found guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If that violation occurred within 1,000 feet of an elementary school, day care center, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college, university, public swimming pool, video arcade, playground, public library, youth center or in or around public housing, expect the penalty to be doubled - up to 1 year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

This is a marked difference from certain places like California, which define possession of small amounts of the drug for recreational purposes as an "infraction," punishable simply by a fine of $100.

The majority of first-time offenders in D.C. are sentenced to community service, and most are able to have their records expunged - assuming they have no prior offenses.

Still, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) argued that the criminal prosecution disproportionately targeted young African Americans, many of whom are unable to hire a decent lawyer and end up with a criminal record that affects them for life.

Barry and fellow Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) are hoping to change that and are said to be in the process of drafting legislation that would either significantly reduce criminal penalties for those caught with a small amount of marijuana, or eliminate those sanctions entirely.

The pair say they have to take control of the issue, or risk outside groups petitioning for competing ballot measures. Ultimately, that would put the issue up for public vote.

A representative of the Marijuana Policy Project has said that advocates of marijuana reform in D.C. may seek a referendum on the issue as soon as next fall.

Wells, who has announced his intention to run for mayor next year, said that it is high time that D.C. "enter the 21st century" and stop prioritizing arrests for a something that is not a major crime.

The measure crafted by Barry and Wells is expected to be introduced sometime this summer. Other Council members have voiced their support for such a measure. However, some, like Phil Mendelson, remain skeptical.

Mendelson was quoted as saying he doesn't believe it's the right time and that he doesn't believe such a measure in the nation's capitol would go over well with Congress. Mendelson added that if the issue were to go before voters, rather than be passed as an initiative by Council, it could avoid additional scrutiny from Congress.

Continue reading "D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Bill on the Horizon" »