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Tokers caught with weed in the nation’s capital can inhale a little easier. Washington, D.C., has officially decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, turning what used to be a misdemeanor into a minor civil infraction.

U.S. CapitolDecriminalization took effect in the District at 12:01 a.m. July 17, at the end of a 60-day review period in Congress.

Marijuana possession used to be a crime in D.C., with penalties including incarceration. Now, the only penalty is a $25 ticket, issued by police on the scene.

No longer may D.C. cops arrest people simply because they have pot on them. Nor may the police conduct searches or take other action when they smell the drug. And they can’t demand identification from anyone carrying less than an ounce of weed.

That doesn’t mean pot is legal everywhere. It will be illegal to smoke on any public land. The federal government owns a large portion of the District, and there cannabis possession is still a crime that could result in jail time and a large fine.

Police were trained in the new policy using an eight-page special order and an online tutorial.

“As of midnight Wednesday night [July 16], no member can make or approve an arrest for marijuana possession without having first taken this training,” said Gwendolyn Crump, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department.

The District Council approved decriminalization earlier this year, one of two ongoing efforts to reform marijuana law. The other will likely have an initiative to completely legalize pot on the ballot in November.

Support for reform is very strong in the District, among the strongest in the country. More than 80 percent favor legalization or decriminalization, while medical marijuana is already legal in the city.

All this represents a direct challenge to the authority of federal anti-drug laws. In addition to D.C., 23 states allow medical weed, while 16 have decriminalized the drug and two have legalized it entirely.

Decriminalization has its opponents, however. The head of the city’s police union, Delroy Burton, says the policy is too vague and confusing for police to enforce properly.

“This is not a simple issue,” Burton said. “It’s about enforcement and decriminalization and where you draw the line of what officers can do or cannot do.”

Marijuana LeavesOpposition is also strong in Congress, where GOP lawmakers in the House passed a budget amendment that would block the District from enforcing decriminalization. The amendment has drawn howls from D.C., where political leaders and residents have called it a tyrannical attempt to squelch the popular will of voters.

Washington is a home rule city, meaning it can manage its own affairs – but only to a point. Congress retains the power to overturn any law passed by District officials.

Doing so isn’t a simple process, however. Republicans hostile to cannabis reform dominate the House. But the Senate, which also must pass the amendment, is controlled by Democrats who are much more supportive of reform.

Likewise, President Obama must sign the legislation before it can become law, and that probably won’t happen. The president, like the Senate, is unlikely to take an action that would so outrage their own supporters in the heavily Democratic District.

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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