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So long, pot clubs. We barely knew ye.
By the tightest of margins, the D.C. Council voted 7-6 to permanently ban social venues where patrons could legally consume marijuana outside of their homes today—an issue on which lawmakers have gone back and forth since they approved a temporary ban on these clubs two months ago, along with a task force to study them. Critics contend that the ban—characterized by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau as “a slap in the face” to those who wished for the task force to carefully consider pot clubs—cannot be removed so long as a congressional rider prevents the District from reducing any penalties associated with marijuana, currently classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the federal government. Advocates were quick to denounce the vote, which occurred before the task force hosts a public meeting tonight as well as a closed-door one this Friday.
“By passing this bill the Council has turned its back on marijuana reform,” Kaitlyn Boecker, an analyst for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “In spite of all the talk of promoting District autonomy and control over local affairs, today’s vote suggests that Councilmembers would prefer to hide behind congressional authority to deflect their responsibilities, rather than do the work of legislating themselves.”
A February poll by City Paper and D.C. Vote found that not only do a majority of District residents support cannabis clubs, but they support an aggressive stance against Congressional measures to block marijuana legalization in D.C.
DCMJ, the group which led the Initiative 71 movement that made way for home-use, tweeted the following:
We are disappointed that 7 of 13 DC Councilmembers think cannabis users are second-class citizens. #StopTheBan
— DCMJ (@DCMJ2014) April 19, 2016
But during Tuesday’s legislative session, Chairman Phil Mendelson said “the task force is not the issue,” noting that he agrees with Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier and Judiciary Committee Chair Kenyan McDuffie, who have also opposed allowing cannabis clubs to sprout up across the District.
“The problem is our ability to regulate, and until we have that ability we ought to maintain the status quo,” Mendelson said from the dais. “I know we will be revisiting this [issue] when we have the task force’s recommendations and we have the ability to regulate in this field. I don’t feel we’re tying our hands at all.”
Once the ban is reviewed by Congress and becomes law, any venue other than a private residence found operating as a pot club knowingly could lose its certificate of occupancy or permit. A committee report said it objected to “such a harsh penalty” because it is “inconsistent with the more reasonable penalties under decriminalization and legalization.” Still, the rider prohibited the committee from lessening the provision.
Asked to comment on the rationale for including that penalty, a spokesperson for Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s office, which submitted the permanent ban, says it would affect only a small number of venues.
“The legislation allows for the revocation of a business license in extreme cases where a business essentially operates as a ‘pot club,'” he said. “To date, the District has not revoked any business licenses or certificates of occupancy for marijuana-related infractions.”
Other legislators who have opposed the permanent ban said the task force’s study will primarily involve pot clubs, not necessarily “larger social-use issues like public smoking in the street,” as At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman explained. At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange—who chairs the Council’s Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs—said he was “disappointed we’re not allowing the task force to do its work,” but ultimately acknowledged that the majority won the day: “I would like to be the person who argues that the [congressional] rider [on marijuana] does not apply in this particular case.”
“It is a little bit of a reversal of the body,” Silverman concluded.”It’s just a change.”
The task force’s first community meeting is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. today at the Wilson Building.