By Alice Popovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The District of Columbia's city council voted on Tuesday to make smoking marijuana in the U.S. capital a violation comparable to a parking ticket.
The bill passed 11-1 in the first of two council votes. The council has a chance to alter the bill before a second vote, which will not come before February 18. To become law, it must also be approved by Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray, who has voiced support for the measure.
Supporters have portrayed decriminalization as an issue of justice since far more black people are arrested for pot possession in Washington than people of other races, according to a study of the issue.
"This bill is designed to change drug laws that do not work, but also to change the disproportionate impact" on a group of city residents, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who introduced the bill, said during the one-hour debate.
Final approval means Washington would join 15 U.S. states and a handful of cities that have removed the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The law could face scrutiny from Congress, which has constitutional oversight over the capital.
But Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a U.S. advocacy group, said there has been no sign the House of Representatives' Oversight Committee would oppose the measure. A committee spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The bill proposes a $25 fine for possession of less than an ounce (28 grams) of pot, less than most city parking tickets.
In an amendment, the council weakened the bill by making smoking marijuana in public a misdemeanor on par with carrying an open container of alcohol. The original fine had been $100.
An amendment was also passed that would make the odor of marijuana reasonable cause to perform a search of a vehicle.
Possession of marijuana in Washington is now a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, except for the handful of patients who use medical marijuana.
A study by the American Civil Liberties Union has shown that eight times more black people are arrested for pot possession in the U.S. capital than people of other races.
Dan Riffle, head of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, applauded the council's vote but criticized the amendments.
The changes "will simply expand stop-and-frisk policies in the District and will do nothing to fight the horrible racial disparities in marijuana enforcement," he said in a statement.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use. Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use.
A Washington Post poll last month showed that 63 percent of city residents favored legalizing marijuana, up from almost half in 2010. Activists in the heavily Democratic city are seeking to put an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize possession of up to two ounces (56 grams) of marijuana and three mature pot plants for personal use.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, James Dalgleish and Prudence Crowther)