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Legal weed advocates are gearing up for a D.C. Council vote next Tuesday on a permanent ban on private clubs where people could legally consume marijuana in the city.
Councilmembers approved the permanent ban 7-6 on first reading last Tuesday, despite the existence of an ongoing task force created in February to study so-called “cannabis clubs.” The venues would allow patrons to toke up or consume edibles outside of their homes. Advocates have argued that the clubs are needed due to federal restrictions on weed in subsidized housing, and that Initiative 71—the ballot measure that allows most residents to grow and use marijuana at home—didn’t intend to put hard limits on social consumption. Proponents of the ban contend D.C. cannot regulate the clubs; they worry about running afoul of Congress.
Currently, an emergency ban bars the clubs from cropping up, and a temporary ban—once it’s reviewed by Congress—will continue to do the same into next year. A draft agenda for Tuesday’s legislative meeting lists the permanent ban as an agenda item.
(Staffers for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson haven’t returned a request for comment; the government is on holiday today.)
“What is incredibly insulting about this vote is that it is scheduled to take place hours before the Task Force‘s first Town Hall Meeting on communal use,” advocacy group DCMJ wrote in a release. “But none of this matters if Tuesday’s vote is either postponed or the majority of the D.C. Councilmembers vote no on the permanent ban.” The latter would require at least one person to change their previous vote.
Kaitlyn Boecker, an analyst for the Drug Policy Alliance, says that if the Council approves the ban, it would essentially tie its own hands: A congressional rider prohibits the District from enacting legislation that “legalizes or reduces penalties” for marijuana use, so it would be difficult to reverse course ex-post facto. If the temporary and emergency bans are allowed to expire, however, Boecker argues that D.C. would have a “clean slate” to “thoughtfully” regulate pot clubs on its own terms; as of the expiration, they’d become legal.
“What’s really disturbing—it’s so ironic it’s happening around [D.C.] Emancipation Day, which is all about autonomy and home rule—is that three days after we’re celebrating, the Council is voting to give away our sovereignty to Congress on this,” she says.
Kate Bell, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project, characterized the scheduling of Tuesday’s vote as “stunning,” given that the task force—which the Council unanimously approved—hasn’t had its first public forum yet. She cited data showing that marijuana enforcement disproportionately affects minorities.
“Councilmembers who claim to support criminal justice reform should stop promoting a policy that leaves many D.C. residents with no safe and lawful place to consume marijuana, because this helps continue the same racial disparities that decriminalization and Initiative 71 were intended to address,” she told City Desk.
DCMJ is calling for its supporters to contact councilmembers over the next few days, urging them to let the ban expire. They’re also hosting a cannabis seed giveaway outside the White House on Saturday afternoon.
“I think people are going to be very upset about this,” Boecker says of the potential passage of a permanent ban. “There will be a lot of action both around the primary and general election on this issue. I know folks have talked about a referendum; it’s not going to die after Tuesday.”
The draft agenda circulated yesterday for Tuesday’s meeting is below:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery