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Kenyan McDuffie eyed the small plastic shot glass in his hand with suspicion, then took a sip. The proprietors of New Columbia Distillers waited for the Ward 5 councilmember’s reaction to their Green Hat Gin. McDuffie swallowed, and smiled.
“I’m not generally a gin drinker,” McDuffie said, “but it’s good.”
McDuffie and three of his aides were visiting the city’s first legal distillery in a century last Wednesday, and he and the distillers each had something at stake. For McDuffie, the distillery represented the rare growing business in an impoverished section of his ward and a potential model for business development in the wide swath of industrial land cutting through Northeast D.C. For New Columbia’s John Uselton and Michael Lowe, the meeting gave them a chance to turn the Distillery Pub Licensure Act of 2013, introduced by McDuffie the day before, to their advantage.
After showing McDuffie’s team around the stills and the “gin cow” used for bottling, the distillers cut to the chase. “That looks like a good piece of legislation,” said Lowe, who hadn’t heard about the bill until the previous evening—it was proposed to McDuffie’s staff by a different would-be Ward 5 distiller hoping to open his operation to the public. “But there’s a little glitch.”
Lowe explained that as currently worded, the bill would allow existing and new restaurants to produce and serve liquor on site, but would prevent operational distilleries like his from adding a bar or restaurant component. A McDuffie staffer promised to fix the bill, since “the intent of the legislation was to provide guys like you with the opportunity.” After a quick huddle on whether McDuffie could accept Lowe’s offer of a bottle of gin as a gift—McDuffie ultimately opted to buy one—the meeting ended amicably.
A single gin distillery—soon to add whiskey to its production line—might not seem like a big deal. But in Ivy City, a neighborhood with hardly any retail and a slew of undesirable public uses like parking for buses and snow plows, New Columbia offers hope for community-enhancing uses of industrial spaces.
McDuffie’s office is working with Mayor Vince Gray on an executive order to create a task force on industrial land use, according to McDuffie staffers. McDuffie hopes that with a little planning, the industrial sections of his ward will see more distilleries and fewer trash transfer facilities.
But on the same day that McDuffie filed his bill to promote distillery pubs, he also submitted legislation to limit a different kind of business development in his ward. The Medical Marijuana Cultivation Center and Dispensary Location Restriction Amendment Act of 2013 would prevent any single ward from having more than six marijuana cultivation centers and two dispensaries—and a ward with at least five cultivation centers would be limited to one dispensary. Ward 5 currently has five approved cultivation centers and one approved dispensary.
McDuffie’s concurrent bills raise the question of whether it makes sense for city officials to favor one drug over another—and whether an area like Ward 5 can afford to pick favorites.
In his press release announcing the Distillery Pub Licensure Act, McDuffie writes that the bill “will bring a significant economic impact to our Ward and the city by creating new jobs and tax revenue generated by increased sales of craft distilled spirits.”
The same, of course, could be said of marijuana cultivation centers. The city’s first certificate of occupancy for a cultivation center was issued last month—for a space on the same block of Fenwick Street NE as New Columbia.
It’s no coincidence that they’ll be neighbors. Marijuana cultivation is considered a “light manufacturing” use, which is only permitted in commercial manufacturing zones. These C-M zones are located primarily along the railroad lines in Ward 5, although there are smaller C-M areas in wards 7 and 8. The vacant warehouses that populate neighborhoods like Ivy City are perfectly suited to both liquor production and cannabis growing.
The first cultivation center isn’t open yet, but it’s not hard to see how it will compare to the neighboring distillery. They’re both fairly closed-off and self-contained. A marijuana cultivation center is the opposite of a public enterprise. It’s got tight security, and local residents aren’t exactly encouraged to stop by and say hello. New Columbia is likewise an isolated endeavor—though Lowe and Uselton say they’ll open up the big front door when spring rolls around, and that volunteers and Habitat for Humanity workers often stop by. During my visit last week, three young men arrived unannounced to take a quick tour and buy a bottle of gin.
Even if neither a distillery nor a cultivation center will enliven Fenwick Street like retail or restaurants would, they’re clearly better than nothing. A cultivation center makes the property more valuable than a vacant warehouse, since property assessors’ main goal is seeing that landlords will collect rent.
And D.C. residents overwhelmingly want access to medical marijuana, which requires cultivation centers and dispensaries. In 1998, Washingtonians voted on a referendum to allow medical marijuana, but Congress’ drug warriors denied the city the funds needed to count the vote. When it was finally tallied, 69 percent of voters had cast their ballots in favor of the referendum.
It’s somewhat surprising that after the District finally won its battle with Congress to permit medical marijuana, the enterprise is being limited by the city’s elected officials. But to McDuffie, this isn’t about the value of medical marijuana, which he supports; it’s simply a question of balance. The ward, he points out, is home to 70 percent of the city’s industrial land, so when people are looking to set up a big nightclub or marijuana cultivation center, they first look to Ward 5. The result can be painful for the local community.
“If you look at a neighborhood like Langdon, you’ve got strip clubs, nightclubs, and a trash transfer station,” McDuffie says, “and then you’ve got homes, you’ve got kids, you’ve got families who don’t go to these clubs, but they have to suffer the effects. You’ve got trash, you’ve got used condoms.”
McDuffie acknowledges that cultivation centers would probably have fewer negative effects than clubs, but he worries they could crowd out true community amenities.
“If you compare a medical marijuana facility to a nightclub, perhaps there are more benefits to the neighborhood,” he says. “But if you have a marijuana cultivation center in a facility, it means you don’t have a bowling alley in that facility.”
Across the Anacostia River, in the other Northeast ward with vacant industrial land, the area’s Council representative takes an opposite view of what’s good and bad for neighborhood development.
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander took some heat last year for emergency legislation that nixed the single approved cultivation center in her ward. But Alexander insists that she simply didn’t want the facility in that location, given her desire to redevelop the area as a new town center, and that she’s in favor of cultivation centers in Ward 7.
“I think they’ve been saturated,” Alexander says of Ward 5. “We have eight wards in the city. We need to equally distribute where these places go.”
Unlike McDuffie, Alexander would prefer not to see new distilleries in her ward. “In Ward 7, we would not be interested in that, because we have a disproportionate number of [liquor] retailers in Ward 7, so we definitely wouldn’t want any more,” she says.
And what about distillery pubs or brewpubs that could attract people from outside her ward? “I don’t think Ward 7 would be interested in that,” Alexander repeats.
Alexander’s priorities are actually borne out by studies on the effects of alcohol and marijuana facilities in communities. Christina Mair of the Prevention Research Center has found that adding new bars and pubs increases the rate of assault resulting in hospitalization. “Not only is greater bar density associated with assault,” she says, “but that effect is greater in denser, poorer, more urban environments.”
As for marijuana, UCLA social welfare professor and leading marijuana researcher Bridget Freisthler recently conducted an NIH-funded study on the link between marijuana dispensaries and crime in Sacramento. “We found that there was no relationship between crime and dispensaries,” she says. “It didn’t matter if you had dispensaries or not; crime was about the same.” Preliminary results of another study she hasn’t yet published indicate that a higher density of dispensaries does appear to be correlated with higher rates of marijuana use.
“The research is definitely more clear on alcohol,” says Freisthler, who has also conducted alcohol impact studies. Freisthler says she hopes to eventually study the impact of marijuana cultivation centers on their surroundings.
But city officials are mostly pretty gung-ho about D.C.’s burgeoning booze business. Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Planning, says she hasn’t heard of any adverse effects of the city’s new breweries in wards 4 and 5.
“We’re a city that doesn’t do a lot of production,” says Tregoning, who expects to chair the Ward 5 industrial land task force following the mayor’s executive order. “So we’re excited about things where it makes sense to produce them here in Washington. That goes for the distillery as well as the breweries. It’s something we already consume, so why not produce it here, too?”
I ask her if the same reasoning can’t be applied to medical marijuana. “I’m not prepared to comment on it,” Tregoning says. “This is an unknown, not only for our jurisdiction but for other jurisdictions. So I think there’s a desire to be cautious. Not to prohibit, but to be cautious.”
But this is a city that has thrived at times on bold experimentation. Tregoning herself never passes up an opportunity to mention that the successful Capital Bikeshare program was born of an earlier failed bike-sharing scheme. And in places like Ivy City, there isn’t much to lose by experimenting. It’s not like Apple and J. Crew are clamoring to set up shop in the area, and with ample vacant industrial space, pot cultivators and booze makers are unlikely to vie for the same properties. This isn’t a choice between marijuana and alcohol; for the time being, at least, it’s a choice between those things and nothing at all. That should be an easy choice to make.