By Tom Ramstack
WASHINGTON, March 27 (Reuters) - Backers of legalized marijuana in the District of Columbia contend the U.S. capital needs to do more than just decriminalize pot, and are gearing up for a vote to make possession legal.
Pro-legalization campaigners want to put an initiative on the November ballot that would go well beyond a measure the city council approved this month that would make possession of the drug a civil, rather than criminal, offense.
The proposal that election officials will put up for public comment starting on Friday is part of a nationwide trend toward easing marijuana restrictions by states and local governments even as pot remains illegal under federal law.
"We can't enforce these laws in a fair way," said Adam Eidinger, the D.C. Cannabis Campaign's chairman. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union has shown that black people in the District were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than people of other races.
Marijuana advocates say legalization in Washington would have greater implications and a higher profile than legalizing the drug in any state.
If Washington voters approved legalization, it would require review by Congress, which is authorized under the Constitution to overturn legislation in the District. Members of Congress have not expressed an opinion on the issue.
"It's right there in Congress' backyard," said Erik Altieri, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use in voter initiatives in 2012. A similar measure is on the ballot this summer in Alaska, while many more states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana.
Legislation passed by the District of Columbia's city council made possession of up to an ounce (28 grams) a civil offense with a $25 penalty, less than most city parking tickets.
Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray supported the measure and is expected to sign it shortly.
Washington's Board of Elections will publish the ballot initiative on Friday to garner public comment on whether voters should decide to legalize marijuana use.
Anyone who objects would have 10 days to file a lawsuit to block the measure. Afterward, supporters would have to collect 25,000 signatures by July 7 before it could be submitted to a vote in November.
The proposed initiative would make it legal for people over 21 to possess up to two ounces (56 grams) of marijuana for personal use. They could grow up to three mature cannabis plants within their home.
People also could give up to one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana to another person over 21 and use or sell marijuana paraphernalia.
A Washington Post survey in January showed 63 percent of District of Columbia voters favored marijuana legalization for personal use. (Editing by Ian Simpson and Tom Brown)