WASHINGTON – Arrests for the public use of marijuana in the District of Columbia nearly tripled in 2016 and are on track to remain high in 2017, public records show.
More than 400 people were arrested in 2016 for public consumption of marijuana, according to D.C. police arrest records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Records show 78 had been arrested as of April 5.
That compares with 142 people arrested in 2015, the year that marijuana use – but not the sale of marijuana – became legal in the city.
Arrests for distribution of marijuana also nearly tripled last year – from 80 in 2015 to 220 in 2016, according to the data. As of April 5, 79 people had been arrested for distribution.
The data include arrests by D.C. police and other law enforcement agencies in the city.
In an email, D.C. police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said the department had “focused its drug enforcement efforts on illegal sales,” leading to an increase in arrests for distribution.
Legalization has led to more arrests for public consumption, Sternbeck said, even though smoking pot outside is still against the law.
Some advocates criticized the increase in arrests, saying they disproportionately affected poor people and minorities.
Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an advocacy group that studied marijuana arrests before legalization, said the number of arrests was “very troubling.”
“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 over-policing and underserving communities of color,” Smith said.
Adam Eidinger, the head of DCMJ, an advocacy group that lobbied for marijuana legalization in the District, was arrested twice in April after handing out free joints near the Capitol. He said the right to smoke marijuana in the District could only be enjoyed by “those who own private property,” whereas renters and those in public housing were left out.
“A lot of it is people not realizing they can’t smoke in public,” he said of the increase in arrests. “A lot of it is people who have no place else to go.”