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Before voting on the bill Tuesday, council members said they wanted to balance concerns over the potential for rampant drug abuse on city streets with that of the lopsided enforcement — which leaves blacks eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, though rates of use among both races are thought to be relatively similar.

Lawmakers approved an amendment to clarify that police can continue to use the smell of marijuana as probable cause to search a vehicle but shelved another that would address whether employers could test for marijuana. By the end of the debate, virtually all council members found common ground behind the analogy of liquor laws — which also prohibit public consumption.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, noting he was not pleased when during a recent outing with his daughter at the Verizon Center he caught a whiff of marijuana being smoked nearby.

Mr. Mendelson first signaled late Monday that he planned to introduce the amendment that would keep criminal penalties for public marijuana smoking intact.

Advocates say that, by carving out the distinction, the city will perpetuate arrest disparities that have been cited as the chief reason for reform.

“Our concern is if you’re making public consumption a criminal arrestable offense, that is going to leave the racial disparities intact,” Mr. Piper said.

Disparate enforcement has led to outcry over New York’s marijuana laws, which make possession of a small amount of the drug in a private home a civil violation but on the street makes it an arrestable offense, as the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies came under attack. Under the laws, officers will ask people they have stopped to empty their pockets, only to arrest them if marijuana is found “in public view” once the person takes it out of a pocket, Ms. O'Keefe said.

“The exception has been so abused,” she said.