Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the city’s top attorney lent their qualified support to a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but they suggested changes to quell concern that people could walk the streets openly smoking joints.
The effort, which has support from the majority of D.C. council members, would put the District among a growing number of states eliminating criminal penalties for the drug and test the willingness of federal officials to look the other way when local governments ease marijuana laws.
Testifying Thursday at a D.C. Council committee hearing, Deputy Attorney General Andrew Fois relayed the support of both the mayor and attorney general for the initiative but proposed several amendments. He said criminal penalties should be kept in place at schools and if the drug is being smoked in public places.
“In order to ensure the quality of life for all, criminal penalties for possession should be maintained for smoking marijuana where children and citizens are enjoying our parks, playgrounds, sidewalks and other public places,” Mr. Fois said.
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. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said Thursday after listening to concerns about the fine that he plans to lower to $25.
“We’re happy to work with you on the amount of the fine,” Mr. Fois said.
Dozens of witnesses, including city residents and marijuana advocacy groups, testified on the bill during a committee session that spanned two days. Though many people supported decriminalization and others advocated for full legalization of the drug, some complained that marijuana use was already openly prevalent in the city and that decriminalization would only make the problem worse.
“Marijuana is a very popular drug in my neighborhood and neighborhoods like mine,” said 10-year-old LaDaveon Butler as he asked the council to keep pot illegal. “Sometimes I can’t even go outside and play on our playground because teenagers are smoking weed out there.”
Other than Colorado and Washington which have legalized marijuana usage, 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 is a civil infraction with a fine of $200.
Council members debated additional aspects of marijuana decriminalization that could be added to the bill, including whether residents could also grow their own marijuana plants.
“I think we are opening up a whole can of worms that we are not going to be getting any positive results for in terms of drying up the illegal supply in the city,” Mr. Fois said.
Officials also expressed concern that the civil fines would be difficult to collect unless people stopped by police could face additional charges if they did not truthfully identify themselves to officers. The attorney general’s office opposed suggestions that residents should be able to expunge their prior conviction records for drug-related crimes.
Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, hopes to rework the bill’s language and send it to the full council for a preliminary vote in December and a final vote in January.
Noting the wide support for the legislation but the question of whether the District should push for legalization, Mr. Wells said the city shouldn’t jeopardize the bill’s chances by moving too quickly and risking interference by the federal government — which still considers the drug illegal.