D.C. Council Endorses Pot Decriminalization as Legalization Fight Looms

'It’s akin to a stone in the middle of a stream,' a pro-pot campaigner says about a fine for possessing marijuana.

A police officer waits with a K-9 dog outside the Capitol South Metro station during rush hour on April 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

A police officer waits with a K-9 dog outside the Capitol South Metro station during rush hour on April 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C. 

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The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to give preliminary approval to a bill that would decriminalize possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana.

In an 11-1 vote, members endorsed reducing the penalty for small-scale possession to $25 – roughly the cost of a city parking ticket. The bill must be approved by the council in a second vote before going to the mayor for approval. 

Possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana in the district is currently a misdemeanor with penalties of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Police still would confiscate the drug if the decriminalization bill becomes law, but the offense would not be part of a person's criminal record.

The bill was introduced by Councilman Tommy Wells, a Democrat running for mayor, and seven colleagues. Two councilmen joined as co-sponsors.

Wells said the bill was "a first step in remedying the failed war on drugs." He denounced the disproportionate share of pot-related arrests among African-American residents.

[DATA: Police Made One Marijuana Arrest Every 42 Seconds in 2012]

Councilwoman Yvette Alexander, the bill's lone opponent, presented a lively series of arguments against it.

"Looks like everyone is on board," Alexander said to her peers, joking there soon would be "a smoke-in with the council."

Alexander said the new law would not force ticketed users to provide identification to police, meaning "you could have Joe Blow, Mickey Mouse" subjected to fines. "Most importantly," she said, "the federal law does not recognize marijuana as less than a crime and we're in the nation's capital."

She also pointed out that purchasing or growing marijuana would remain illegal.

"It looks like we're just trying to go in the direction of legalizing marijuana," Alexander said. "With all the holes in this legislation, I don't know why we aren't looking at that."

[CHARTS: ACLU Breaks Down the Demographics of Pot Busts]

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a co-sponsor, introduced a successful amendment – supported by Mayor Vincent Gray – to remove the decriminalization of public smoking, saying it was a "quality-of-life issue."

"What if you're stoned and you walk into someone's front yard?" Mendelson asked. Wells opposed the amendment, saying it would continue a common reason for marijuana arrests. Wells expressed concern that police might deem back-porch marijuana smoking a crime if the amendment passed.

The Mendelson amendment passed by a voice vote.

Councilman David Catania, a co-sponsor, told colleagues he had never smoked marijuana, but Councilman David Grosso, who co-introduced the bill and favors legalization, shared he once was arrested for marijuana possession.

Councilman Vincent Orange expressed concern that the bill in its current form does not forbid companies from testing employees for marijuana.

"Either you're going to go forward with the legalization of marijuana or you're not," he said, cautioning that residents might use pot and then lose their jobs.

Councilman Marion Barry, one of the bill's sponsors, was absent from the council meeting.

Gray endorsed the bill in October, but expressed concern in a Tuesday letter to council members about its reduction of penalties for public smoking. 

[RELATED: Legalization May Win the West (and D.C.) in 2014]

Pro-marijuana activists see the bill a first step toward total legalization.

“It’s akin to a stone in the middle of a stream and we’re just stepping on it to keep our feet dry,” says D.C. Cannabis Campaign coordinator Adam Eidinger.

Eidinger is currently working to get a legalization initiative on city ballots in November.

Polls suggest city residents favor legalizing marijuana by a wide margin. A Washington Post poll released Jan. 15 found 63 percent support for legalizing the drug for personal use. An April 2013 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found 63 percent support for regulating pot like alcohol.

Despite broad public support for legalization, Eidinger says city bureaucracy is slowing the process.