The Senate Judiciary Committe voted yesterday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Under the cmmittee decision - the first such action by any congressional panel - possession of up to one ounce would be a civil rather than criminal offense under federal law, with a fine of up to $100.
States would retain the power to make possession of any amount a criminal offense, as all but 16 do.
The action came as the committee began voting on a proposed revision of the federal criminal code, the product of 10 years of work toward consolidating a great array of criminal laws enacted piccemeal over a period 200 years.
The marijuana provision approved by the committeef was more symbolic than anything else, because the federal law on simple possession has almost never been enforced.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, however, possession theoretically can result in up to a year in prison or a fine of up to $5,000.
The decriminalization provision, offered in the form of an amendment by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), unraveled a delicate compromise provision between committee liberals and conservatives that would have declared possession of up to 10 grams - or approximately 20 cigarettes - as neither a crime nor civil offense, and thus levied no penalty. Penalties of up to a year in prison would have resulted in conviction for possession of larger amounts.
Bayh argued that this compromise went too far, saying it would, in effect, legalize some marijuana use and would have a symbolic effect nationally, as "a signal to the states" to follow suit.
on the other hand, existing law fosters "a great deal of hypocrisy" and causes the expenditure of $600 million annually in marijuana law enforcement, Bayh said.
Sixteen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, he said.
Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.), a supporter of decriminalization, argued that current laws "have made paranoid a whole subculture of people."
However, committee conservatives argued that at least some prison sentences are needed to preventexpansion of marijuana use, and suggested they may later submit a substitute amendment making possesiion of one ounce a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in prison.
Criticizing Bayh's proposal, Sen. Paul D. Laxalt (R-Nev.) asked, "Has anyone weighed the psychological impact on the states?"
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) read portions of committee testimony suggesting that marijuana use destroys the portion of the user's brain "that makes him know he's alive."
The vote on the amendment was 6 to 4 with the "no" votes east by Sens. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), Thurmond. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), cosponsor of the bill. Lexalt voted for the amendment, but indicted later that he may no have understood what he was voting on.
The vote may turn out to be short-lived, because six committee members were absent and will be polled later on the question. Moreover, Hatch threatened to submit a substitute amendment calling for prison sentences for possession of even small amonts of marijuana.
The committee also voted an amendment offered by Abourezk providing that the maximum sentence for any crime could not exceed the minimum sentence by more than 24 per cent.
The 25 per cent tolerance, which would limit the power of federal judges to impose widely different sentences for the same crime, would apply ot sentencing guidlines that would be recommended by a specially created federal sentencing commis- [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
When a dozen more amendments expected to be offered, committee staffers said they are uncertain whether a final vote on the new criminal code will be reached this week.
In any case, the bill is not expected to reach the Senate floor until next year, and House action on a companion measure is just beginning, with opposition expected in the House judiciary Committee.