WASHINGTON (AP) — District of Columbia lawmakers took a long-awaited first step Tuesday toward decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, but not before watering down the bill to maintain criminal penalties for smoking in public.

In the first of two votes on the bill, the D.C. Council voted 11-to-1 to make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a civil offense subject to a $25 fine. The bill would also decriminalize smoking pot on one’s own property. But the council also approved an amendment that would treat smoking in public the same as possession of an open container of alcohol, which is a low-level misdemeanor.

Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray and Police Chief Cathy Lanier were among those concerned about giving the green light to public pot smoking. They said the proposed $100 civil fines would essentially be unenforceable. Police were also concerned that the bill would cause open-air drug markets to re-emerge, the mayor said in a letter to the council.

The bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Tommy Wells, was the only one to vote against the amendment, saying it would perpetuate the racial disparities in marijuana arrests that he was trying to address.

“We have tried criminalizing the public smoking of marijuana for decades. It has not worked,” said Wells, one of several councilmembers challenging Gray in the April Democratic mayoral primary.

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 district in 2010, and 91 percent of those arrested that year were black. About half of the city’s 632,000 residents are African-American.

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.

Wells said the bill is still a step forward because residents won’t have to worry about a criminal penalty if they are caught with marijuana. Treating pot smoking like an open-container violation would also reduce the penalty for marijuana from 6 months in jail to 60 days.

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.”
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Ben Nuckols

Associated Press