TODAY - AFTER YEARS of consideration and debate - Washington's city council is scheduled to take final action on a bill that would decriminalize most cases of possession of marijuana in small amounts. Though opponents would have you believe that the bill would open the floodgates for every conceivable narcotics sin, that is not what's proposed. The measure, which received preliminary council approval earlier this month by a narrow 7-to-6 vote, is a sensible attempt to protect certain drug offenders from carrying criminal records for the rest of their lives:

Under the legislation, someone apprehended for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana would receive a citation similar to a parking ticket and could be fined as much as $100 for each of the first three offenses. After the third violation, an offender would be subject to the same maximum penalty now set forth in city law: a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. As it stands, anyone arrested for possession is charged under the comprehensive Dangerous Drug Act of 1938, which also covers heroin, cocaine and other hard-drug offenses. Moreover, criminal records do not now indicate which drug an offender is accused of possessing.

Council member Wilhelmina Rolark, who was not one of the bill's early supporters, has stated that after lengthy consideration of the issue she supports it because many of those now caught under the law are black youths, "and when it comes time for them to seek jobs, it's going to be increasingly difficult for them to get hired." Her point is well taken, for today's marijuana laws are ordinarily enforced against those whose "criminality" comes to the attention of the authorities by accident. There is hardly a legal restraint, in fact, that compares with the law on marijuana for inconsistency of enforcement. Most people who smoke are never caught. It is unwise, in our view, for society to permit the creation of a large class of presumptive criminals when their crime can be of no demonstrable harm to anyone other than themselves. This is particularly so when other drugs are readily available and legal - alcohol being the most glaring example.

A criminal sanction is most fair and effective when it is limited to proscribing those offenses of genuine danger to the society. Possession of small quantities of marijuana does not meet that test. The local legislation does not weaken the legal stand against marijuana but actually strengthens it by bringing the law into conformity with the practical limits on its enforcement. We urge the council to enact the bill and Mayor Washington to sign it.