Marijuana dealers are running rampant through District neighborhoods and are bypassing jail because city laws are too lax, federal and local law enforcement officials told a D.C. Council committee yesterday.

U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis urged D.C. officials to approve a bill that would upgrade the charge for selling marijuana in the city from a misdemeanor to a felony, with a penalty of up to five years in jail and a maximum fine of $50,000. Currently, the District is the only jurisdiction where a person convicted of selling marijuana, regardless of the quantity, would face only a one-year prison sentence.

"To put it starkly, if someone is caught with 100 pounds of marijuana, which has a street value of approximately $250,000, it would be a misdemeanor under District of Columbia law," Lewis told the council's Judiciary Committee at an hearing at One Judiciary Square.

The lenient marijuana laws have made the District a haven for violent drug gangs, Lewis and Alfred Broadbent, assistant chief of the D.C. police special services division, testified. In Maryland, as in most states, marijuana distribution is a felony carrying a five-year penalty. Virginia has graduated penalties that range from one year in jail for half an ounce to up to 30 years in prison for more than 10 pounds.

"No longer can marijuana trafficking be considered harmless or inconsequential," Lewis said. Last spring, she said, a gang war between dueling marijuana dealers in Northeast Washington led to 27 arrests for crimes including 22 homicides and several shootings, kidnappings and robberies.

Broadbent recalled how the city's drug unit arrested a New York man at Union Station who was hauling 90 pounds of marijuana. Because he was charged with a misdemeanor, the District could not extradite him when he failed to appear for trial.

The assistant chief said city officers arrested 4,660 people on marijuana charges last year.

"Our officers continue to fight the good fight when it comes to marijuana abuse and trafficking," he said. "But our officers know that the vast majority of these arrests--even in serious cases--carry only misdemeanor charges . . . . This is demoralizing to our officers and frustrating to the people we serve."

Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was the only member present at the hearing. He asked Lewis whether the council should consider graduated penalties based on the quantity of the drug. He also wondered whether college students who passed around free joints to their friends should be treated as felons.

Lewis argued for a blanket felony charge covering the manufacture, sale or distribution of any amount of marijuana.

"We shouldn't draft our laws in a way that [focuses] on those exceptional cases. We have a situation here in the District of Columbia where marijuana trafficking, regardless of the amount, is a big problem," she said.

Brazil said after the hearing that a strong law is "clearly needed, no question." But he wants to make sure that otherwise upstanding young people do not get tarred with a felony conviction.

"You're wrong if you sell it or give it or use it in any amount, but do we want to make felons out of college students, young people?" he said. "Maybe so, but I'm trying to just fully understand the impact of what we're talking about."

Brazil said the issue was not likely to come before the full council until the spring.