Donut Hole of Legal Marijuana Possession in Washington, DC?

Today in Washington, DC adults over the age of 21 can legally buy and possess up to two ounces of marijuana(48-904.01 (a)(1)(A)) and give another person of legal age up to an ounce, as long as they aren’t paid for it(48-904.01 (a)(1)(B)), as a result of a vote in the November 2014 election on a measure called Initiative 71. Voters almost assuredly meant to fully permit possession of up to two ounces of cannabis by anyone over 21 years old, but there is a bit of a problem: laws passed by the DC Council from a prior push for decriminalization earlier that year are still in force and directly conflict with the new system created by Initiative 71.

DC is unique among its neighbors for allowing any amount of marijuana possession legally.  Taking that marijuana outside the District can mean hefty penalties

DC is unique among its neighbors for allowing any amount of marijuana possession legally.  Taking that marijuana outside the District can mean hefty penalties

It seems pretty straightforward: keep it under two ounces for yourself, don’t give anyone over an ounce and don’t sell it. Follow these rules and you’ll be in the clear, right? The law even says that the words “controlled substance” won’t apply to marijuana “that is or was in the personal possession of a person 21 years of age or older at any specific time if the total amount of marijuana that is or was in the possession of that person at that time weighs or weighed two ounces or less”(48-904.01 (a)(1A)(A)(i)), so it should be safe to assume this was meant to be fully legal.

However, the decriminalization laws passed nine months before the election made the possession of up to one ounce a civil violation with a $25 fine(48-1201(a), 48-1203(a)). If the offender was under 18 they would also mail a letter to their parents(48-1203(b)(2)). Initiative 71 did not change this.

On the surface this doesn’t seem to pose an issue.  DC voted to legalize possession for those 21 and older, so the prior decriminalization effort now applies to 20 year olds and under.  However, the wording of the decriminalization law is such that the $25 fine for possession of up to an ounce still applies to everyone regardless of age.  Thus, DC currently has an interesting system where it is legal to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, but unless you have at least an ounce you can still get fined.

This issue is not unique to Washington or marijuana.  Many places have layers of laws which have to been read very closely to get the full picture – just knowing what one law says on one topic in one place isn’t enough.  This can create conflicting views and real questions about what exactly is legal and how you can be punished for violating a law in the spirit of following a different one.

Most people don’t know the fine details of the law well enough to be aware of these issues.  Most of us simply accept what we’ve heard and assume the reporter/talking head/journalist knows what they’re talking about, but the odds are good that the people covering such things also haven’t read the laws.  In this case ignorance could cost $25.  In other cases the stakes are much higher, but this issue shows the need to be aware of what the laws actually say, as there can be consequences for following what seems to be common sense. 

By the time most news about a law reaches us, the story is several people removed from the last person to read the relevant bills and statutes.  Each additional person the news goes through before it reaches us results in more and more being lost and increases the odds that what does make it through isn’t entirely accurate, like when you play the telephone game.  Considering how directly the law affects everyone its rather important that people know the laws that pertain to their lives.

The fact that conflicting laws all enacted in the spirit of lessening the harsh penalties for marijuana possession can still be applied to fine someone for having up to one ounce when having twice that amount is perfectly OK is clearly an oversight, but it’s one that can still ensnare DC residents until it is changed.  Until then, it’s important the marijuana users in the area know about the issue.