At a D.C. Council session on Wednesday—one that many advocates didn’t see coming until shortly before it occurred due to a lack of public notice—the Committee on the Judiciary approved draft language of a permanent ban on “cannabis clubs” that would bar people from consuming marijuana in private venues outside of their homes, such as lounges.
Activists and policymakers have debate the issue since last year, when the Council approved emergency legislation prohibiting such establishments in March. That emergency legislation was renewed on Jan. 5, by a 9-4 vote among the Council’s Committee of the Whole. (It remains in effect until April 13.) The permanent version of the ban in the draft approved today mirrors existing law; the full Council must vote on it in future first and second readings.
“This is not a topic on which the committee wishes to move recklessly,” Judiciary Chairman and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie said, citing a Congressional rider that prevents the District from using federal funds to regulate pot. There are currently “no licensing, zoning codes, and public-health standards” for weed clubs. (Theoretically, the District could establish those regulations by drawing from reserve funds to get around the rider.)
Before a vote was taken, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans made a procedural motion to table consideration of the bill. “Whatever we approve here becomes the new standard,” he explained of his motion. “We should therefore work between now and [April 13] to find a solution and not rush through” passing the legislation.
That motion was defeated 3 to 3, with Evans, LaRuby May, and Anita Bonds voting yes, and McDuffie, Mary Cheh, and Phil Mendelson voting no. Mendelson joined the committee in his role as chairman of the Council, a configuration permitted by Council rules. Without his vote, advocates claim, the legislation would have been tabled.
— DCMJ (@DCMJ2014) January 27, 2016
It’s clear @ChmnMendelson came to hearing to kill efforts for some sort of rights for cannabis users.
— Adam Eidinger (@aeidinger) January 27, 2016
Advocates who’ve been pushing for non-residential social spaces to consume marijuana in were quick to decry the committee’s decision. They’ve argued that the ban discriminates against those who live in federally subsidized housing (where any use of marijuana is illegal) and is not in line with the spirit of Initiative 71, the ballot measure approved by 7 out of 10 D.C. voters in November of 2014. Supporters of the prohibition have retorted that there could be unforeseen consequences from on high (Congressional action) and that D.C. doesn’t now have the right regulations.
“The committee assumes clubs would have located in places of least commercial resistance, [such as] east of the Anacostia,” McDuffie said while reviewing the draft language. Advocates seem to have been unmoved by such an argument.
“Today the Council committee charged with managing local marijuana policy acted to criminalize all marijuana consumption outside a residence, in direct opposition of the will of District voters,” Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement quick on the heels of the vote. “By passing a permanent ban, the Council…is tying its own hands and voluntarily limiting the District’s sovereignty and its ability to legislate. It is time for the District’s elected officials to stand up to Congress and stop submitting to misguided prohibitionist policies.”
A 2014 decriminalization law currently bans marijuana consumption in “any place to which the public is invited.” Advocates argue that if the ban were to expire, membership organizations like clubs would be exempt from the ban.
Photo by Katheirne Hitt via Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0