The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a watered-down version of a bill decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation's capital, adding a last-minute amendment that would ensure pot smoking in public continues to be illegal.
The bill, which passed by a 11-1 vote and faces a final count as soon as Feb. 18, went into the session with 10 co-sponsors on the 13-member council. But it nearly fell apart in the hours before the vote amid objections from the mayor and the police chief and squabbling among council members who seemed uncertain of its scope and effects.
The final product makes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of $25, yet preserves laws making the public smoking of marijuana a criminal offense. But the bill also reduces penalties for marijuana — up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine — to a punishment of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The difference between the penalties in use and possession of marijuana make the District's proposal distinct from states that have decriminalization statutes on the books, analysts say. Sixteen states have some form of marijuana decriminalization laws, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"The vast majority of states treat public use the same as possession," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project.
While decriminalization statutes and fines vary from state to state — with some including graduated penalties for repeat offenders — only New York creates a similar distinction for the public view or consumption of marijuana, Ms. O'Keefe said.
"Some states, like California, don't distinguish between possession and smoking," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Marijuana laws diverge dramatically across the country, with Colorado and Washington having outright legalized recreational use of the drug that the federal government still considers illegal.
The wide spectrum of laws on the subject has left lawmakers plenty of room to craft legislative solutions suited to their own jurisdictions.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray wrote in a letter submitted to the council Tuesday morning that it was necessary to keep public use a criminal offense so Metropolitan Police Department officers would have the ability to keep drug use on city streets at bay.
"The legislation as drafted will have the effect of removing any deterrents from persons smoking marijuana in parks, school grounds, sidewalks, and in front of their homes," he wrote, comparing the previously proposed $100 fine for public marijuana use to a littering fine.
He said Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier shared his concern, and he invoked the imagery of the drug wars that ravaged the city in past decades. If the bill passes, he said, police "will have very little ability to combat open-air drug markets except through undercover operations."
"Those of us who remember the days when open-air drug markets plagued our neighborhoods do not want to see them or the violence that all too often accompanies them return," he said.
But carving out an exception for public pot smoking to remain a criminal offense undercuts the original purpose of the bill, which was to reduce the racial disparities in the arrest rates for marijuana possession, according to activists and the bill's chief sponsor, council member Tommy Wells.
"I am extremely disappointed that my colleagues, Mayor Gray and Chief Lanier would choose to continue the pattern of injustice by supporting these amendments," said Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, who pledged to continue working on the bill ahead of the next vote.
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.
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