Despite raising concerns with the decriminalization of marijuana in Washington, D.C. before it was enacted, the top cop in the nation’s capital now says the policy makes police officers’ jobs easier.
Cathy Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, told NewsChannel 8 on Tuesday that decriminalization “saves us from having to charge someone for small amounts of marijuana now, because it really never was productive to begin with.”
Now that officers don’t have to spend time making arrests, “it’s a little bit easier for us,” she said.
The comments signal a change in tone from the chief. Prior to decriminalization’s enactment last summer, Lanier expressed concern about “the risk to children with increased access, the health impact of increasingly potent plants, and conflict with federal laws.”
While she didn’t specifically oppose the final decriminalization bill, Lanier did successfully push to have the initial proposal amended to maintain the criminalization of using marijuana in public.
The law that was enacted decriminalizes simple possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, now punishable with a $25 ticket instead of an arrest and a criminal record.
More recently, in November, D.C. voters approved an initiative to completely legalize possession of two ounces of marijuana and the cultivation of six plants. Some in Congress have pushed to block the city from carrying out the measure, but there is a dispute about whether language in a large federal funding bill prevents its enactment. Absent a court ruling telling D.C. not to proceed with implementing the law, legalization is projected to take effect on February 26.
Citing a report by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that blacks in D.C. were more than eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, advocates framed the push for decriminalization and legalization in racial justice terms.
Lanier reacted negatively to the argument that her cops were engaged in a racially discriminatory enforcement approach. “Marijuana users are simply not being targeted in the manner suggested by the report,” she said at the time. “The ACLU also appears not to understand our city very well… [T]his is a complex issue that cannot be boiled down to an allegation that MPD selectively enforces the law against our black communities.”
In her new remarks on Tuesday, Lanier tried to play down decriminalization’s impact even as she portrayed it as a positive change. “Marijuana possession has never been a big arrest category,” she said. “The average officer for the past 20 years has avoided the possession of marijuana arrest because they’ve not been prosecuted for many, many years. I mean, they’re kind of de facto not prosecuted, so it was a waste of time for the officer to make a possession of marijuana arrest, even back when I was an officer.”
But the numbers tell a different story.
The ACLU report, using MPD’s own data, found that there were 5,393 marijuana arrests in 2010, an average of 15 pot busts a day. That means D.C. had a higher marijuana arrest rate that year — 846 arrests per 100,000 people — than any state in the nation. The report also estimated that D.C. spent between $9 million and $43 million on marijuana possession enforcement in 2010, more per capita than any state.
Local marijuana reform advocates welcomed Lanier’s remarks about decriminalization making cops’ jobs easier but took issue with her assertion that marijuana arrests were rare prior to the new policy’s enactment.
“Chief Lanier may have strongly desired that her officers not prioritize marijuana arrests, but the numbers from past years indicate that the rank-and-file didn’t get that memo,” said Aaron Houston, a longtime marijuana reform advocate in D.C. who serves as a political strategist for Ghost Group/Weedmaps. (Disclosure: Weedmaps owns and operates Marijuana.com.)
“Her platitudes are a clear demonstration of why it’s important to actually change the marijuana laws, rather than relying on assurances — however well meaning — from police or politicians.,” Houston said.
Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance agreed, calling Lanier’s remarks “refreshing.”
He said law enforcement leaders in other cities “should take note of Chief Lanier’s comments, especially given the fact her department made more marijuana arrests per capita than any U.S. state before the local decriminalization law took effect.”