Oct 24, 2023 - News

How Mayor Bowser's "drug-free zones" would work in D.C.

Acting police chief Pamela Smith at the podium with Mayor Muriel Bowser to the left. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

A "gray market" of marijuana sales and other drugs on the street are "fueling violence" in Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday — as she sought to enact new policing measures.

Why it matters: Bowser's proposal to declare "drug-free zones" across the city could raise questions over the constitutionality and effectiveness of anti-loitering proposals.

Driving the news: The mayor wants to empower police to establish "drug-free zones" in certain public spaces for five-day spans. In these areas, congregating for the "purchase, sale, or use of illegal drugs" would be outlawed.

Of note: The proposal would revive a 1996 law that was repealed in 2014 amid constitutional concerns. Bowser had supported the repeal.

The big picture: Residents and businesses have complained of open drug sales across the district, including in Chinatown. Prosecutors recently charged a crew with drug trafficking in the Kennedy Street corridor of Northwest.

  • There are "quite a few areas" with open-air drug markets in D.C., said acting police chief Pamela Smith, who declined to share where they're located. "I don't want to forecast where we will go."

What they're saying: The city would first identify areas with drug dealing, then limit loitering through a drug-free zone designation and clean up the vicinity, Smith said at a press conference Monday.

  • Bowser added, "No one should think that there will be 20 drug-free zones being implemented at the same time, but this is a tool the chief would have."

Between the lines: Even though the use and possession of marijuana is legal in D.C., recreational sales remain illegal due to a congressional block.

  • That has sprung gifting shops and proliferated street sales of weed. "There's a lot of cash in it … [and] a lot of violence involved in it," Bowser said.

Context: Talk of drug-fueled violence in the nation's capital is a throwback to decades ago. Approximately 60 open-air drug markets existed in 2002, according to federal authorities at the time. That year D.C. recorded 262 homicides.

  • D.C. has reported 225 homicides so far this year, up 33% from last year.

Catch up fast: Bowser's bill also increases penalties on those who organize retail shop thefts and bans people from wearing masks to commit a crime or intimidate people.

  • It rolls back some reforms enacted after the police murder of George Floyd. The legislation amends D.C.'s chokehold ban to distinguish "between a serious use of force and incidental contact with the neck."
  • Officers would also be allowed in some cases to view body camera footage before writing their initial police reports.

What's next: Bowser needs seven votes on the D.C. Council to pass the package. Several progressive lawmakers have not yet weighed in on the specifics of the bill — but signaled an openness to work together on reducing the crime wave.


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