Politicians in Washington, DC, have voted by an overwhelming majority to decriminalise the possession of marijuana and smoking it in the privacy of your home.
The bill, passed by 10 votes to 1 in the DC Council yesterday, puts the capital in line with 17 states that have taken similar action – but does not go as far as Colorado or Washington state, which have legalised the sale and taxation of the drug.
According to reports in the Washington Post, Mayor Vincent C Gray fully intends to sign the bill through, which would make smoking pot a civil rather than criminal offence.
The new law will mean anyone caught in possession of up to an ounce of cannabis in the city, or found smoking it in a private household, is liable to a fine of $25 (£15).
It puts the severity actually smoking marijuana in public on a similar footing to being caught openly toting from a can of beer – a minor criminal offence punishable by a penalty up to $500 and a six-month jail sentence.
The capital’s bill is seen as a landmark for states looking into decriminalisation, because it is more straightforward and easier to enforce than those of predecessors like California or Massachusetts.
Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the pro-legalisation Drug Policy Alliance, told the Post: “DC will serve as a model for jurisdictions where, for one reason or another, full taxation and legalization is not yet possible.”
Despite this major development in the US capital, there remains a stark contrast between federal laws on marijuana and practical applications across different states.
As far as the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is concerned, marijuana is among the most dangerous drugs, has no medicinal value and is illegal in the US.
It remains unclear how the new law in Washington, DC, would be enforced in areas under federal jurisdiction such as national parks or the Mall.
Testifying before a Congress oversight panel yesterday, deputy DEA administrator Thomas Harrigan said that the easing of laws governing marijuana is a threat US institutions.
“We should not abandon science and fact in favour of public opinion,” Harrigan said. He echoed previous testimony from James Capra, the DEA's chief of operations, who told a Senate panel in January that “going down the path to legalisation in this country is reckless and irresponsible”.