WASHINGTON (AP) — Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana would no longer be a criminal offense in the nation's capital under a bill approved Tuesday by the D.C. Council.
If the bill becomes law as expected, the District of Columbia would join the 17 states that have decriminalized pot possession in some way. Mayor Vincent Gray supports the measure, and Congress is not expected to intervene to stop it.
The council approved the bill Tuesday by a 10-1 vote, with one abstention. Last month, the council watered down the bill to maintain criminal penalties for smoking pot in public. Gray and Police Chief Cathy Lanier had expressed concerns that civil fines for smoking in public would be unenforceable.
Despite that change, Councilmember Tommy Wells, the bill's lead sponsor and a candidate for mayor, said the district will have one of the nation's strongest decriminalization policies. Civil fines for possession will be just $25, and police won't be allowed to search someone just because they smell marijuana.
"It really begins to get at the issue of how much harm has been caused by criminalizing," said Wells, a Democrat. Possession "will no longer be a reason to arrest you, a reason to frisk you, a reason to detain you."
Wells said he pushed for the legislation in a bid to cut down on the number of arrests for low-level drug crimes, which he said can have a ruinous effect on the lives of young people, particularly African-Americans.
The American Civil Liberties Union found in a study released last year that blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in the city in 2010, and 91 percent of those arrested that year were black. About half of the city's 632,000 residents are African-American.
The measure would apply only to D.C. police, not federal law enforcement officers, and possession would still be illegal on federal property.
Although the bill had broad support on the council, opponents said the city should not be endorsing marijuana use. Councilmember Vincent Orange, who is also running for mayor, withheld his vote after his amendment that would have banned employers from testing applicants for marijuana was rejected. He accused Wells of rushing to decriminalize pot for political reasons without considering the consequences.
"Why are we rushing to smoke?" Orange said. "This is all about getting votes — telling black folks, 'Let you all smoke.' This is an election year."
The ACLU and groups advocating reform of drug laws applauded the measure.
"This is a big step forward for our nation's capital, as well as our nation as a whole," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Clearly, marijuana prohibition's days are numbered in the United States."