Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, Simple Possession of Marijuana Decriminalization Act of 2013

Testimony of Eduardo Ferrer, Legal & Policy Director

Good afternoon Chairman Wells and members of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.  My name is Eduardo Ferrer and I am the Legal and Policy Director of DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service organization that seeks to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today regarding the Simple Possession of Marijuana Decriminalization Act of 2013.  I am here today to offer our support for the bill and to recommend ways in which the youth-related provisions of the bill can be improved.

B 20-409 Will Reduce the Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Disparities Currently Present in Arrest for Possession of Marijuana

First and foremost, I support the Simple Possession of Marijuana Decriminalization Act of 2013 because it will help reduce the current racial, ethnic, and economic disparities that exist in arrests for simple possession of marijuana.  In 2011, the Metropolitan Police Department made 113 arrests of youth for simple possession of marijuana.  108 – or over 95% of these arrests – involved youth who were categorized as either Black or Hispanic; 2 of the arrests involved youth who were categorized as White; and 3 of the arrests involved youth who were categorized as either Asian or Unknown.[1] 

These huge disparities in arrest rate for simple possession of marijuana exist despite the fact that there appears to be little difference in reported use of marijuana among Black, Hispanic, and White youth.  According to the Center for Disease Control’s national High School Youth Behavior Risk Survey of 2011,[2] 43% of Black youth surveyed responded that they had tried marijuana at least once in their life, 42% of Hispanic youth responded the same, and 38% of White youth responded they had tried marijuana at least once.  The small difference in reported use narrows further when youth were asked about use in the last 30 days – with 25% of Black youth, 24.4% of Hispanic youth, and 21.7% of White youth responding that they had used marijuana in the 30 days prior to the survey.

So, simply put, we know that Black, Hispanic, and White youth all report to having tried or using marijuana at similar rates, but Black and Hispanic youth are being arrested for it at far, far greater rates than White youth in the District.  This bill will be a good first step in reducing the disproportionate impact on youth of color relating to arrests for possessing marijuana. 

Additionally, but importantly, I want to point out that we have very good reason to believe that youth arrests generally – and therefore likely youth arrests for possession of marijuana specifically – disproportionately impact poverty-stricken youth, i.e., youth whose families are making below the federal poverty guidelines.  Too often, as a result of living in such poverty, the youth with whom must endure incredible amounts of trauma – the murder of a parent or close family member; physical, psychological, or emotional neglect or abuse; constant food or housing insecurity.  This trauma goes unrecognized and untreated, and our youth turn to marijuana to self-medicate and help them through the pain they are suffering.  The youth we work with then get in trouble for the marijuana use – either directly through arrest for marijuana specifically or indirectly when they get arrested for something else but then their marijuana use is used against them in the course of the court proceedings. 

B 20-409 Can Be Improved By Moving the Response to Underage Marijuana Possession from the Justice System to the Public Health System

And so, I raise this point about disproportionate impact that the criminalization of marijuana has on poverty-stricken youth because it leads me to my main recommendations. First, and most importantly, the process to intervene in the life of a youth who is caught with an ounce or less of marijuana should be moved from the justice system to the public health system.   The current bill requires that a youth to attend a drug awareness program but does not specify who is responsible for administering the program or ensuring compliance with the program.  We recommend that drug awareness program be evidence-based and run through the Department of Behavioral Health – not through the justice system.  Additionally, the supervision to ensure that a youth completes the drug awareness program or any required community service also should be handled by the Department of Behavioral Health.   In other words, the intervention proscribed under this law for youth caught with less than one ounce of marijuana should come from the public health system, not the court system.

Second, we would recommend that the bill include a specific provision stating that the use of marijuana itself cannot be used as the basis for detaining a youth.  As I stated earlier, many of the youth who come into contact with the system are using marijuana not recreationally, but medicinally.  They are often either punished for that use or expected to immediately cease using marijuana before any additional wrap-around services are put in place to address the real reason the youth is using marijuana in the first place.  If this provision, or something similar, is not included in the bill, we will have made only a small dent in the disproportionate impact that marijuana use has on DC youth. 

Third, we would oppose a fine for youth.  If trends continue, the youth who are likely to be impacted by this bill will continue to be youth living in poverty.  As such, neither the youth nor their family will likely be able to pay the fine proscribed under this bill.  In lieu of the fine, we would recommend five hours of community service. 

Closing Remarks

In closing, I appreciate the Council turning its attention to this critical issue.  Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify today.  I am available to answer questions you may have.

[1] Calendar Year 2011 Criminal Justice System Information Data provided by the Metropolitan Police Department to DC Lawyers for Youth upon request (on file with author). 

[2] See the CDC’s Youth Online portal for all data from the survey: Unfortunately, we had to rely on data from the national survey instead of the DC-specific survey in our testimony because the sample size of white youth in the youth behavior risk survey for DC was too small to be significant and, therefore, was not reported.  Interestingly, according to the national survey, more White youth report using alcohol and other drugs (such as prescription drugs, cocaine, ecstasy, and meth) than Black youth.  Almost exactly the same percentage of White and Black youth report being offered, sold, or given drugs on school property in the year prior to the survey.

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