The Washington Post - USA (2020-09-16)

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A12 EZ RE THE WASHINGTON POST.WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 16 , 2020


“We have already decided as a
community that marijuana isn’t
dangerous.”

‘Rarely worth the effort’
In Trey McNeil’s case, accord-
ing to court records, undercover
officers staking out an apartment
building in Southeast Washing-
ton in 2019 said they saw him
handing what they believed was
a package of drugs to another
man in exchange for cash.
Police moved in to arrest Mc-
Neil, then 27, an African Ameri-
can who lived in Congress
Heights. Searching him, they
found just over an ounce of pot, a
digital scale and $117. He was
charged with possession with
intent to distribute.
McNeil, who could not be
reached, rejected a plea offer.
Several months later, after his
lawyer filed a motion challenging
the legality of the search and
arrest, prosecutors dropped the
case.
“ I wasn’t surprised,” said Jo-
seph McCoy, McNeil’s court-
appointed lawyer. “These things
are rarely worth the effort to
prosecute.”
Sometimes a pot bust is a
precursor to a more serious
crime.
In April 2019, a judge sen-
tenced Ja’amonte Jeter, 21, to
12 months’ probation after he
sold $20 of marijuana to an
undercover officer on Benning
Road NE. In Jeter’s pockets, ac-
cording to court records, police
found an ounce of weed, three
Xanax pills, $129 and a scale.
Ten months later, after Jeter
had violated his probation, police
charged him with shooting a man
in the lower back across the
street from where he was arrest-
ed for selling the pot.
As part of a plea agreement,
Jeter admitted to attempted as-
sault with a dangerous weapon
and carrying an unlicensed pis-
tol. A judge released Jeter from
jail in August and placed him on
home confinement while he
awaits sentencing.
R aymond Perry, 29, was
among the 220 people charged in
2018 for smoking pot in public. A
team of undercover narcotics of-
ficers “observed” him getting
high while he was in a lawn chair
on a sidewalk in Northeast Wash-
ington, according to court rec-
ords.
R eached by phone recently,
Perry said the officers hand-
cuffed him and took him to the
police station, where he was
fingerprinted and issued a cita-
tion requiring him to appear in
court. At the hearing, he paid a
$25 fine.
“I thought it was some BS, but
they were like, ‘You’re not sup-
posed to be doing it,’ ” said Perry,
who described himself as an
Uber driver and a rap artist.
He said he is more cautious
about smoking pot in public
since the arrest. But that doesn’t
mean he won’t light up.
“I’m smoking right now,” he
said.
paul.schwartzman@washpost.com
john.harden@washpost.com

vised probation.
His case was among 115 mari-
juana arrests The Post reviewed
that occurred between May 2018
and the end of 2019. In about
70 percent of the cases, prosecu-
tors either declined to file charg-
es or dropped the case, or the
charges were dismissed. In about
10 percent of the cases, a guilty
plea resulted in probation.
Douglas Jefferies, among the
304 Whites arrested for marijua-
na between 2015 and 2019, was
one of the few charged with a
felony. Investigators found more
than 24 pounds of pot, 512 edi-
bles and $16,483 in cash last
September at a Dupont Circle
mansion he owned, court records
show. The mansion, which Jeffer-
ies no longer owns, had hosted
pop-up marijuana shops.
It was Jefferies’s third arrest in
less than a year. In November
2018, officers raiding the man-
sion seized more than six pounds
of pot, dozens of pot-infused
candies, scales and $2,210 in
cash. Jefferies pleaded guilty to a
misdemeanor and was sentenced
to time served.
Four months later, he was
arrested again after police dis-
covered nearly two pounds of pot
and $6,400 in cash in his Con-
necticut Avenue hotel room. He
pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor,
and a judge sentenced him to six
months’ probation.
In his current case, court rec-
ords show that Jefferies and
prosecutors recently entered into
a “stet agreement,” which typical-
ly signifies that charges will be
dropped if a defendant meets
certain conditions.
Jefferies did not respond to
calls or text messages. Jefferies’s
lawyer, Marnitta King, and a
spokesperson for the U.S. attor-
ney’s office declined to comment.
Earlier this year, a national
ACLU study found that Blacks
are 3.6 times as likely as Whites
to be arrested for marijuana, a
rate “roughly the same” as in the
organization’s study in 2013.
Jon Gettman, a Shenandoah
University criminal justice pro-
fessor, said the racial disparity is
fueled by police being deployed
to high-crime areas that tend to
be poor and predominantly
Black.
“ It’s not that police are looking
for weed busts in Anacostia,”
Gettman said. “It’s that there’s a
lot more police activity in general
in Anacostia than, say, Cleveland
Park. It really has to do with the
concentration of enforcement ef-
forts.”
But Vida Johnson, a George-
town University law professor
who teaches in the school’s Crim-
inal Defense and Prisoner Advo-
cacy Clinic, said police make a
concerted effort to look for illegal
drug activity in Black neighbor-
hoods.
“Rather than go to American
University or George Washing-
ton’s campus, where we know
there are marijuana sales, they’re
focusing on poor communities of
color that are mostly African
American,” she said.
“And to what end?” she asked.

Felony charges are rare
A “strong odor of marijuana”
wafting from Alexandre Foy’s car
caught the attention of the police
officer who stopped him in 2018
for failing to heed a pedestrian
crossing signal outside the Wa-
tergate apartment complex.
Foy, then 35, an African Ameri-
can man from Lanham, was al-
ready on probation in Maryland
for pot possession and distribu-
tion, something the officer
learned after entering his name
in a police database. A search of
the car turned up 10.2 ounces of
pot and nine vials of THC oil,
according to court records.
“I had to do it, I gotta feed my
kids and family — I need the
cash,” Foy said, according to the
police complaint filed in court.
Foy denied he was selling pot
when reached by The Post. But he
pleaded guilty to distribution
after prosecutors reduced the
charge from a felony to a misde-
meanor. A judge suspended a
six-month prison sentence and
placed him on six months’ super-

occurred in Ward 3, which en-
compasses neighborhoods such
as Cleveland Park and Friendship
Heights, which are predominant-
ly White and among the city’s
most prosperous.
A more racially diverse dis-
trict, Ward 1, which includes
Adams Morgan and Columbia
Heights, accounted for nearly
16 percent of the arrests since
legalization.
D.C. Council member Charles
Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of
the Judiciary and Public Safety
Committee, described the dispar-
ities as “very discouraging,” espe-
cially in light of the national
focus on racial justice after the
killing of George Floyd in police
custody in Minneapolis.
“It gets back to the heart of
what the protests have been
about — uneven and unfair en-
forcement in policing along ra-
cial lines,” Allen said. “We can
change the laws, but if we don’t
change the nature of policing,
we’re not creating the impact we
want.”

In 2015, the year pot was
legalized, overall arrests plum-
meted from 2,095 to 314. Since
then, the volume of arrests has
risen, reaching 1,007 in 2018
before falling to 798 last year, the
data shows.
Arrests for possession dropped
from 2,488 in 2012 to 22 in 2015,
and have remained around that
number since. But annual arrests
for public consumption seesawed
from under 100 to more than 250
before declining. After initially
decreasing, arrests for distribu-
tion or intent to distribute have
tripled in the past four years.
D.C. police spokeswoman Kris-
ten Metzger said in an emailed
statement that the department
“respects the intent” of Initia-
tive 71 and “makes very few
arrests” for smoking pot in public
or possession.
But Metzger also said that the
department “takes illegal distri-
bution, especially where it is
linked to violent crime, very
seriously and we will continue to
protect our residents by enforc-
ing these laws.”
The Post’s analysis was drawn
from a list of more than 11,
marijuana arrests between 2012
and 2019 provided by the police
department in response to a
Freedom of Information Act re-
quest. The data does not include
arrests made by other law en-
forcement agencies, including
U.S. Park Police.
Men accounted for 89 percent
of all marijuana arrests during
the eight-year period. Of those
males, 90 percent were Black.
Nearly 65 percent of those arrest-
ed were between ages 18 and 30.
Before and after legalization,
just over 40 percent of the arrests
occurred in Wards 7 and 8, which
include the District’s poorest and
most heavily African American
neighborhoods. By contrast, less
than 1 percent of all arrests

ment of African Americans is a
focus of broad concern, the
analysis echoes national studies
that have shown the persistence
of racial disparities as enforce-
ment has declined in states
where marijuana has been legal-
ized.
A D.C. police spokeswoman
declined to comment on the
disparity, noting that arrests for
consumption or possession of
small amounts of marijuana have
declined significantly since legal-
ization.
But advocates and defense at-
torneys said police still focus on
the city’s poorer, mostly Black
neighborhoods because that’s
where officer deployments and
investigations of violent crime
are concentrated.
Marijuana-related arrests,
they said, are an entree for police
to gather information about oth-
er alleged crimes.
“They can use the odor of
burning marijuana or street sales
to pat people down for weapons
or check for outstanding war-
rants,” said Paul Zukerberg, a
defense lawyer who has repre-
sented clients arrested on pot
charges. “They try to turn people
into involuntary informants or
state witnesses.”
D.C. Superior Court does not
maintain statistics for the dispo-
sition of marijuana-related ar-
rests. A Post review of more than
100 such cases shows that charg-
es are often dropped or prosecu-
tors negotiate plea bargains with
probationary sentences. When
defendants refuse a plea, pros-
ecutors in some instances have
abandoned cases, especially
when relatively small amounts of
marijuana are involved.
A lthough punishments are of-
ten minimal, Zukerberg said a
marijuana arrest — no matter the
outcome — often requires visits
to court and other costly disrup-
tions.
“It can hurt people’s chances of
getting employment and passing
background checks while the
case is pending,” he said. “And a
case can be pending for weeks,
months and years.”


‘What the protests have been
about’


When advocates campaigned
for Initiative 71, as the 2014
referendum measure for legaliza-
tion was known, a main selling
point was that the reform would
erase the gap between the num-
bers of Blacks and Whites penal-
ized for using a drug that has
wide appeal.
By then, a robust movement to
relax marijuana laws across the
country had emerged. A key driv-
er was a 2013 American Civil
Liberties Union study that re-
vealed wide inequities in enforce-
ment nationwide, including in
D.C., where police were eight
times as likely to arrest Blacks as
Whites for possession.
The passage of Initiative 71
allowed individuals 21 or older to
possess up to two ounces of
marijuana on D.C. land, cultivate
as many as six pot plants at
home, give gifts of up to an
ounce, and possess drug para-
phernalia such as pipes and
bongs.
But Republicans in Congress
did not allow the city to eliminate
penalties for public consumption
or the buying and selling of
cannabis. As a result, street deal-
ers remain a focus of “buy and
bust” police investigations.
“The goal was to not only
eliminate the criminality associ-
ated with cannabis but to estab-
lish a regulatory system for dis-
tribution,” said G. Malik Burnett,
a leader of the reform effort.
“When there’s a gray area, police
are able to enforce what they feel
they should enforce.”
Earlier this month, the D.C.
Court of Appeals voted 2 to 1 to
overturn the conviction of a man
charged with possession with
intent to distribute, a decision
that proponents of pot reform
seized on as a victory.
During a 2017 traffic stop in
Southeast Washington, U.S. Park
Police caught Darnell Kornegay,
25, who is African American,
with 1.7 ounces of pot, a digital
scale, 23 empty plastic bags and
$769 in cash. But Judge Catha-
rine F. Easterly wrote that the
amount of pot Kornegay had “did
not exceed” the city’s legal limit
and that no one witnessed a sale.
“This ruling continues to show
that the police need training on
what the law says,” said Adam
Eidinger, the lead organizer of
the Initiative 71 campaign. “They
need to see this as a signal that
they’re misinterpreting the law.”
Before legalization, Blacks ac-
counted for nearly 89 percent of
the police department’s 8,
pot-related arrests from 2012 to
2014, The Post’s analysis shows.
After legalization, between 2015
and 2019, there were 3,631 mari-
juana arrests. Eighty-nine per-
cent of those arrested were Black.


ARRESTS FROM A


Focus on poorer areas blamed for racial gap in pot arrests


Source: D.C. Police, U.S. Census ATTHAR MIRZA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Black people are arrested disproportionately more
than White people, despite a decline in total arrests
Total marijuana-related
arrests

Ratio of Black to White
marijuana-related arrests

0
2012 2019 2012 2019
0

100%

50

75

25

2,

3,

1,

4,000 arrests

Marijuana
legalized

Marijuana
legalized

Black White

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST
Raymond Perry was among the 220 people, the overwhelming majority of them Black, who were charged in the District in 20 18 for smoking pot in public.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST
Supporters of Initiative 71, the 20 14 referendum measure that legalized marijuana in the District, take
their message to t he street during the campaign. A main selling point was that the measure would erase
the gap in the number of Blacks and Whites penalized for using the drug. But the disparity remains.
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