The Carter administration yesterday endorsed removing federal criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but said it should be left to the states to decide whether to decriminalize their own possession laws.
Dr. Peter G. Bourne, director-designate of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy, said decriminalization "seems to have been an effective and appropriate approach" in the eight states that have dropped criminal penalties for simple possession so far.
But he emphasized, "It is the position of the administration that it should be left to the individual states to determine whether they wish to decriminalize . . . and that the federal government should not seek in any way to influence that decision."
The federal penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana, defined as one ounce or less, is levied under the Controlled Substances Act, which provides for up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $5,000, a fine which can be doubled for a second offense.
The federal law on simple possession has never been enforced, Bourne, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Justice Department testified yesterday before the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Comtrol. Federal enforcement concentrates on distributors of large amounts.
The Carter administration does not intend to propose legislation, but is endorsing a bill "along the lines" of one introduced by Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.). It would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less, but would impose a civil fine of up to $100. Criminal penalties for the sale or distribution of even small amount would not be affected.
Bourne said the criminal penalties for possession are "counterproductive" and "have resulted in otherwise law biding young people spending time in prison and incurring perinancent damage to their careers and their ability to entre professions."
He said as many as 35 million Americans have tried marijuana and as many as 11 million are now using the drug at least weekly. The sixth annual report of the National Institute of Drug Abuse released last week said 15 million people used marijuana one or more times in the month preceding its survey.
The administration remains opposed to legailzation or marijuana, Bourne said.
During the election campaign, Jimmy Carter said he favored decriminalization for possession of small amounts but would not tell the states what to do.
Oregon, California, Minnesots, South Dakota, Colorado, Ohio, Vermont and Maine have decriminalized marijuana possession so far.
Bourne said the administration was also "carefully reviewing its position on penalties for possession of cocaline, but he declined to elaborate.
Federal decriminalization for Possession was vigorously opposed by Los Angeles Police Chief Edward M. Davis, who is also president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Davis said no one "from the President down through the lowest bureaucrat should in any way attempt to act as a huckster for the decriminalization of marijuana in the remaining states that have not gone the decriminalization route.
"It is absolutely illogical to legalize or decriminalize at the user end and to hypocritically make it a crime to provide this legalized or decriminalized demand. Pushers don't make users. Jsers create pushers," he said.