The Washington, D.C. Council has taken a first step toward decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in the District.
Council voted Tuesday to approve a decriminalization bill. The bill faces another Council vote, then would have to be signed by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
Under the proposal written by Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells, pot offenders would be ticketed; the fine would be $25 for possessing less than one ounce or $100 for smoking pot.
Offenders would not face criminal charges or have a criminal record. Treating pot smoking like an open-container violation would also reduce the penalty for marijuana from 6 months in jail to 60 days.
The bill had been changed from what was originally proposed. It would still be a crime to smoke pot in public; some councilmembers had raised concerns that decriminalization would treat smoking pot more leniently than drinking in public is treated now.
"My sense is, while citizens don’t like the criminal penalties associated with it, they also want to continue prohibition in public," said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
Gray raised concerns about smoking in public in a letter he sent to Council before Tuesday's vote.
In addition, police are still allowed to use the smell of marijuana as probable cause to search a car or home, something the American Civil Liberties Union has opposed.
Right now, possessing any amount of pot is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to six months in prison or a fine of up to $1,000. In addition, offenders can have a criminal record that complicates getting a job, enlisting in armed services or even getting a commercial driver's license.
The majority (91 percent) of those people arrested for the crime are black, which has raised concerns about how fairly that law is applied.
Councilmember Yvette Alexander voted against the bill, saying it sends a mixed message and that the council should go ahead and consider legalization, which she also opposes.
"It really doesn't make sense to the general public,'' she said, but `"it looks like everybody's on board, so let's have a smoke-in with the council.''
Seventeen states have some form of marijuana decriminalization. Some, including New York, maintain criminal penalties for public smoking, while others allow police to arrest people who don't produce identification when ticketed. Colorado and Washington state have gone further by legalizing the sale and possession of pot. Legalization advocates in the nation's capital are trying to put the issue before voters in a ballot initiative this fall.