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Council mulls felony status for marijuana

(Published May 3,1999)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

D.C. City Council is considering legislation that would significantly increase criminal penalties for selling marijuana, turning what is now a misdemeanor into a felony offense carrying a possible five-year prison term.

Renewed efforts to criminalize marijuana distribution in the District, with penalties comparable to what exists in surrounding jurisdictions, are a result of what a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis described as a "huge problem within the last year" involving gang-related arrests for selling the only illegal drug that carries minor penalties under current D.C. law.

"Gangs recognize the penalties are so low for (marijuana) trafficking in the District that it’s risk-free, but the real problem is the accompanying violence," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips.

In a recent letter to council members Charlene Drew Jarvis and Harold Brazil, who jointly introduced the legislation in response to the U.S. Attorney’s request, Lewis cited recent investigations that "have tied 21 homicides to the marijuana markets near Orleans Place NE, Delaware Avenue SW and Levis Street NE."

Lewis wrote that the local and federal law enforcement community’s "hands are tied…by the (current lax) penalty structure," despite vigorous joint attempts to investigate and prosecute large-scale marijuana trafficking in the District.

"There is a feeling among some in the law enforcement community that people come to the District from Maryland and Virginia to buy and sell marijuana because the penalties are so significantly lower here," Lewis wrote.

Current Maryland law includes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for growing or distributing 50 pounds or more of marijuana. In Virginia, a graduated penalty structure includes possible punishment of more than 30 years in prison for distributing more than five pounds.

"Some drug sellers have abandoned the sale of other drugs (in the District) because, except under limited circumstances, the sale of marijuana, regardless of quantity, is a misdemeanor," Lewis wrote. "Time and time again, marijuana dealers are arrested and immediately returned to the street. Marijuana trafficking is a highly lucrative, low-risk enterprise."

The proposed legislation, pending before the council’s judiciary committee which Brazil, D-At large, chairs, is not expected to face major opposition. A similar proposal introduced by Jarvis, D-Ward 4, three years ago died due to controversy surrounding the inclusion of mandatory minimum sentences in the bill. Mandatory minimums are not included in the legislation currently under consideration. A public hearing on the proposal is expected to be scheduled after the council returns in September from its annual summer recess.

Penalties for use or simple possession of marijuana would not be affected by the proposed bill.

Neither does the legislation address medicinal use of marijuana, an issue on which D.C. voters cast ballots last November that have yet to be counted. A legal challenge is pending in U.S. District Court over Congress barring the city government from spending money to count the votes.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator