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District of Columbia city council to vote on decriminalizing pot

A thriving marijuana plant is seen at a grow operation in Denver, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A thriving marijuana plant is seen at a grow operation in Denver, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The District of Columbia's city council will vote on Tuesday on whether to decriminalize marijuana in a move that could make smoking a joint a violation comparable to a parking ticket.

The bill is expected to pass the first of two votes required for legislation in the district, since eight of the council's 13 members have sponsored the measure, and Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray has said he favors it.

The decriminalization law could face scrutiny from Congress, which has constitutional oversight over the capital.

Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a U.S. advocacy group, however, 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.

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.

If the measure is approved, the U.S. capital would join 15 states and a handful of cities that have removed the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Supporters have portrayed decriminalization in Washington as a way to cut law enforcement costs and increase fairness. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union has shown that eight times more black people are arrested for pot possession in the nation's capital than people of other races.

The proposal would eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession. The proposed $25 fine for having less than an ounce of pot is smaller than most city parking tickets. People smoking in public would be fined $100, and minors would have a letter sent to their parents.

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. The starting price for medical marijuana in the District is about $300 an ounce.

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.

President Barack Obama said in a New Yorker magazine interview last month that smoking marijuana was a "bad habit," but thought penalties fell disproportionately on minorities. States legalizing pot should go ahead with their plans, he said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and James Dalgleish)

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