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Something strange happened at a D.C. Council meeting earlier this month: For a few minutes, it appeared that it had become legal for residents to smoke marijuana in private venues outside of their homes.
It didn’t last long. During the same session on Jan. 5, two councilmembers (Charles Allen and LaRuby May, of wards 6 and 8) switched their votes to maintain a ban on “cannabis clubs” for another 90 days. Mayor Muriel Bowser had lobbied the body to extend the prohibition, which the Council had approved unanimously last March after Initiative 71 went into effect. That ballot measure—which D.C. voters had overwhelmingly supported in November 2014—legalized using and growing small amounts of marijuana at home. But advocates and officials disagreed over whether it had limited consumption activities elsewhere: Those on Bowser’s side favored a strict “home grow, home use” interpretation of the law.
“They snatched a victory from us,” legal-weed advocate Adam Eidinger told City Paper on the afternoon of Jan. 5, when the Council ultimately voted 9–4 to keep prohibiting private venues from letting attendees light up or eat marijuana edibles on site. “Today showed there’s disagreement. That sets up a good compromise situation,” said Eidinger.
Whether the ban on cannabis clubs is passed in the form of permanent legislation remains to be seen. On Wednesday, the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary approved language that would maintain it. The whole Council must now vote on the legislation twice.
But a new D.C. Vote–Washington City Paper poll shows that the majority of District voters wouldn’t support such a law: 61 percent of those polled support a law that would create “regulated places where adults can legally consume marijuana” outside of their homes; 30 percent opposed such a law, and nine percent reported that they were unsure.
It’s not as though most—or even many—bars and restaurants in D.C. want patrons to get high on their premises, and that’s not really what advocates are asking for, anyway. Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance explains that under D.C.’s 2014 marijuana decriminalization law, consumption became illegal in “any place to which the public is invited,” including bars. Letting the emergency law expire would therefore allow consumption only in membership organizations.
Boecker says that if the ban were lifted, no explicit definition of “private club” would remain in the statute; a “narrow exemption from the strict limits on consumption” in the 2014 decriminalization law would persist, though, meaning groups could permit members to consume marijuana in buildings, facilities, or premises “used or operated” by them.
“In practice, this would mean organizations like the University Club could allow cannabis consumption on their premises,” Boecker explains. “There are many examples of venues for social consumption of cannabis, including cannabis clubs and lounges. We can look to Spain, Amsterdam, Alaska, Portland, [Oregon], and some Colorado locales for models.”
Meanwhile, proponents of the ban argue that it’s meant to minimize nuisances toward neighbors of potential pot clubs. They’ve also expressed concerns about the current lack of regulations and issues that may arise if D.C. tries to put regulations in place.
As of this week, it seems like advocates will be hard-pressed to change policymakers’ minds before the full Council votes on the permanent ban: The Committee on the Judiciary, chaired by Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, approved language that would maintain the prohibition. “This is not a topic on which the committee wishes to move recklessly,” he said, noting that Congress may intervene if D.C. attempts to tax and regulate the local marijuana market using federally appropriated funds. Although Ward 2’s Jack Evans tried to table consideration of the bill and thus avoid voting on its language, his motion was defeated 3-3. The emergency ban remains in effect until April 13.
But advocates could have a potential ally, or at least a sympathizer, in the mayor. Eidinger and the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, met with Bowser a couple weeks ago to discuss the ban. The meeting “was a positive development for marijuana advocates looking for a place to use outside home,” Eidinger subsequently tweeted. The mayor “committed to work on a new social Cannabis use policy.” (A spokesperson for the mayor declined to comment on the meeting.) If the political winds rise in the coming weeks, lawmakers could change their thinking.
Still, any compromise would likely not amend the basic tenants of Initiative 71, which allows people to possess up to two ounces of weed, grow no more than six cannabis plants at home, and gift as much as one ounce to someone else older than 21. Selling marijuana remains illegal in D.C.: Recall Kush Gods, the mobile-edibles dispensary whose operators were arrested and charged with distribution of marijuana in December. Its founder claimed people only had to “donate” to receive goods.
Things could stay that way for years without a tax-and-regulate scheme in place and—no less significant—with a Republican-controlled Congress that may not want to open the door to greater legalization in the U.S. But if there’s some legal way for Bowser and the District government to tax and regulate marijuana in the city, despite the Congressional ban, that’s what the majority of D.C. voters want: 66 percent, according to our poll.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery; graphics by Zach Rausnitz