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Washington D.C. becomes latest jurisdiction to decriminalize marijuana

July 20, 2014 at 4:32 PM EDT
This week, the District of Columbia became the latest jurisdiction to decriminalize possession of marijuana. It’s part of a growing national trend that may signal a changing attitude across the nation about the issue. Hari Sreenivasan discusses this shift with USA Today's Melanie Eversley.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This week, the District of Columbia became the latest jurisdiction to decriminalize possession of marijuana. It’s part of a growing national trend. For the latest about all this, we’re joined by Melanie Eversley, a reporter for USA Today.

So, what’s the new rule specifically in D.C., you can’t just walk down the National Mall smoking marijuana now, right?

MELANIE EVERSLEY: Right, right. Essentially, this law took effect on Thursday. It basically decriminalizes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. So what that means is if you are caught with that on your person, instead of being subject to criminal penalties, what you would get is a $25 ticket, which is less than the cost of a parking ticket here in New York City.

It also changes a couple of other things. If police smell marijuana while they’re on their beat or whatever, they can no longer search a person for it. If they also find up to an ounce of marijuana on a person, they can no longer automatically search them, so it drastically changes things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But federal land in D.C. is exempt from this?

MELANIE EVERSLEY: That’s right. That’s right. It only affects non-federal land. Federal land is still subject to the more strict marijuana laws.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So just across the river in Brooklyn, the DA here has sort of decriminalized it as well. He points it out for kind of a different reason.

MELANIE EVERSLEY: Yeah, well that’s the interesting thing. This whole issue is opening up a debate that’s kind of reminiscent of the crack cocaine debates from the 1980s and 1990s. The Brooklyn DA pointed out that the people who tend to be affected by low-level drug offenses are young, minority men. And he declared that he was no longer going to prosecute such cases because he felt that it just wasn’t worth taking up his people’s time when there are a lot more harsh crimes that they could be focusing on. And also, he took issue with the fact that when people are convicted of these crimes, it affects the rest of their lives, in terms of finding housing, in terms of getting scholarships, you know, all sorts of things in their lives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is this a sign of a kind of changing attitude across the nation about this issue? Obviously, we’ve had stories about Colorado and Washington legalizing sales for recreational use now, and this is obviously the nation’s capital.

MELANIE EVERSLEY: Yeah, yeah, you know, not to say that social media is a measure of what the general population is doing, but what I’ve seen is that people overwhelmingly on social medial, at least, are responding in a way that suggests that they feel that maybe it is time to consider a decriminalization in a lot of places. You have not only the low-level drug laws, but also just in terms of medical marijuana, there’s increased knowledge of the health benefits of it as well. So I think that people across the country are beginning to question whether it’s worth police time to prosecute these things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Besides what you hear on social media, there are other people, there are other legislators in different states around the country that are pushing back that don’t agree with this.

MELANIE EVERSLEY: Right. I would say that the strongest argument against is that there are studies that have shown that when one uses marijuana, it produces changes in the brain that makes one want to seek out stronger drugs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, Melanie Eversley from USA TODAY, thanks so much.