A new policy under consideration by the District of Columbia would wipe clean the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana crimes.
The District Council voted earlier this year to decriminalize cannabis, replacing incarceration with a civil fine of $25. Voters in the District could legalize the drug for recreational use in November.
But in the meantime, even minor weed offenses remain on the criminal records of tens of thousands of people, many of them convicted of nothing more serious than simple possession.
In October, the Council voted to approve a new policy that would expunge the criminal records of “residents with a non-violent misdemeanor or felony possession of marijuana as their only prior criminal history,” the office of Council Member David Grosso said.
“Our criminal justice system has relied on vengeance and punishment,” Gross said during a hearing Oct. 7.
The council voted unanimously to approve the policy on a first consideration. The change could apply to as many as 20,000 people arrested over the last 10 years.
Council members also passed a bill changing medical marijuana law in the District. MMJ has been legal in Washington since last year. The vote opened the program up to a wider range of patients.
Initially medical weed in D.C. covered patients with just four conditions: HIV/AIDS, cancer, and glaucoma, as well as multiple sclerosis and other illnesses with severe muscle spasms.
A temporary bill passed in August allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to whomever they see fit, not just patients with the first four disorders. The vote in October made that policy permanent.
Marijuana reform has hit Washington with force over the last two years. And it’s likely to peak in November with the vote on legalization.
Unfortunately, the federal government could get in the way. The District is a home rule city, meaning it gets to make its own local decisions, for the most part. But Congress has the legal authority to prevent any District policy from taking effect. Federal lawmakers have nullified public votes in D.C. before.
Congressional Republicans tried this summer to kill the decriminalization plan, but the Democrat-controlled Senate never acted on it. If Initiative 71 succeeds in legalizing weed Nov. 4, lawmakers are likely to step in again.
By that time, they will probably control both the House and the Senate, giving them more power to interfere. But they still must either win President Obama’s signature or override his veto. Neither outcome is likely, given that Democrats don’t want to alienate the District.