Legal Or Not, Smoking Pot In Public Will Get You Arrested

By Kelly Burch 07/13/17

Marijuana arrests in Washington DC are on the rise and some advocates think it's because people don't know smoking in public is illegal.

Marijuana smoker blowing out smoke during a street festival

More than 400 people in Washington, D.C. were arrested in 2016 for public use of marijuana—nearly triple the number of arrests from the year before. 

Although recreational use of marijuana is technically legal in the nation’s capital, it remains illegal to partake in public or to sell it. However, the rise in arrest rates isn’t tied directly to legalization—in 2015, the year pot was legalized in D.C., there were 142 people arrested for public use. Arrest rates are expected to remain high this year, with 78 people arrested for public use as of April 5th, according a Washington Post report.

In addition to more people being arrested for use, arrests for distributing marijuana also rose dramatically last year as well—from 80 in 2015 to 220 in 2016. Though it is legal to grow, possess, and distribute small amounts of cannabis in the District of Columbia, there is currently no retail market in place other than medical marijuana dispensaries.

Washington, D.C. police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said the arrests were not unusual, since the department had “focused its drug enforcement efforts on illegal sales.” He also said that legalization has led to more arrests for public use.

The D.C. law explicitly states that a person can be arrested for “smoking, eating, or drinking marijuana…in any public space, such as: on any street, sidewalk, alley, park or parking area; in a vehicle on any street, alley, park or parking area; any place to which the public is invited.”

Despite that, some argue that the stats show overzealous policing. Adam Eidinger, the head of DCMJ, an advocacy group that lobbied for marijuana legalization in D.C., said the current law favors “those who own private property,” while renters and people in public housing are too often arrested for using marijuana in public. 

“A lot of it is people not realizing they can’t smoke in public,” said Eidinger, who was arrested twice in April for handing out free joints near the U.S. Capitol. “A lot of it is people who have no place else to go.”

Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an advocacy group that studies marijuana arrests before legalization, was very troubled by the number of arrests. 

“A rise in marijuana enforcement, especially at a time of historic and dropping levels of crime in the District, suggests a return to failed practices of overpolicing and underserving communities of color,” said Smith.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.