- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2013

A D.C. Council member plans to introduce legislation next week that would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana for recreational use in the nation’s capital — the latest in a series of proposed steps to loosen the District’s drug laws.

Ten of the city’s 13 council members have signed on to a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, virtually assuring some type of reform in the near future.

On Tuesday, a senior Justice Department official is scheduled to address a Senate committee on the decision not to block legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado, which was approved through referendums last year.

But passage of a similar law in the District likely would test the boundaries of the Obama administration’s willingness to look the other way — with even pro-pot activists carefully considering their strategy in the federal government’s backyard.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, who plans to introduce legalization legislation when the council returns from summer recess Sept. 17, said he will be monitoring remarks made at the hearing for guidance as he continues to work on the bill’s final draft.

While the fervor surrounding legalization initiatives grows across the nation — with the Marijuana Policy Project announcing Monday its goal to legalize pot in 10 states by 2017 — Mr. Grosso said it might take a few attempts before such legislation could pass.

“I’m not holding my breath this year, but I’m hoping to get the debate out there,” said Mr. Grosso, at-large independent. “If we’re going to have alcohol legal in this country, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have marijuana legal.”

A step too far?

While D.C. Council members have demonstrated broad support for a bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession, the same cannot be said for legalization.

“The motivation for decriminalization simply has been the issue of the war on drugs and the disproportionate impact on African-American youths getting criminal records,” said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, a sponsor of the decriminalization bill. “The impetus behind legalization would be, ‘This substance is OK and should be regulated.’ That’s fundamentally a different initiative.”

Mr. Grosso said his bill would outline a tax and regulatory scheme for marijuana sales, allow residents to grow small amounts of the drug on their property, and establish licensing and enforcement requirements to be handled by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.

The decriminalization bill before the council would make possession of an ounce of marijuana or less a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine and require forfeiture of the drug.

Excluding Colorado and Washington, 15 states have some form of marijuana decriminalization on the books, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. But no single standard exists. In Nevada, a 2001 law classifies possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as a misdemeanor on first offense, and a violator can be fined up to $600. In Vermont, which adopted decriminalization laws this year, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana counts as a civil infraction, and a violator can be fined $200.

Federal ambiguity

The Obama administration last month gave a tepid nod to legalization laws in Washington and Colorado, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. telling those states’ governors that he won’t sue to block their laws. The Justice Department also issued guidance to its prosecutors nationwide telling them to put average users at the low end of their priorities.

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