The D.C. Council twisted and turned but ultimately upheld an existing ban on so-called cannabis clubs—private venues where residents can legally consume pot—on Tuesday.
The procedural whirlpool began with a debate among the body’s 13 legislators over whether it should let that ban, originally passed as an emergency bill last March in the wake of marijuana legalization through Initiative 71, continue into the new year. Activists mounted an urgent #LetTheBanExpire campaign on social media to highlight their major concerns, which many of them expressed at a public hearing in December: namely, that the prohibition against consuming marijuana in non-resident spaces like bars disproportionately burdens those living in public housing (where federal law prohibits weed), makes businesses liable for customers who choose to use, and is simply outside the spirit of the majority-supported 2014 ballot measure—widely seen as a partial win for D.C.’s autonomy.
“I support the will of the District voters, and they spoke very clearly on this issue,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in opposing the ban. “I believe the bill as written is overly broad… this is also not an emergency.”
Nadeau’s remarks were echoed in part by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans (“We don’t need an emergency on this”) as well as At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, who argued that there are circumstances under which D.C. may want to permit residents—such as parents who have young children—to consume pot outside of their homes.
Still, others—including Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie—wanted to keep the ban, at least for now. McDuffie said he was sensitive to the position of marijuana advocates but that D.C. needs to work gradually towards a tax-and-regulate regime before opening the door to “unintended consequences” at the hands of Congress. Mendelson explained that he supported the prohibition on cannabis clubs along with Mayor Muriel Bowser and police Chief Cathy Lanier in order to remove ambiguity for law enforcement agents.
“I’m surprised at these comments [against the ban] because [the bill] continues legislation that was supported unanimously [last year],” Mendelson said. “The origin was from the executive and in particular the chief of police.”
So the Councilmembers voted. And for just a few minutes, it seemed like the emergency measure had failed to pass: With seven yeses versus six nos, it didn’t meet the threshold of approval for such legislation. (The body then turned to approve an incentive program for residents to install security cameras on their properties, through D.C. rebates.)
But before the session ended, two councilmembers changed sides: Charles Allen and LaRuby May, of Wards 6 and 8, respectively. This meant the final vote on the emergency legislation was 9-4, upholding the ban. (Mendelson had noted the mayor’s office had reached out to say the District wouldn’t be able to properly license cannabis clubs under current regulations, advising against letting the prohibition on them expire.) It remains in effect for 90 days.
“They snatched a victory from us,” says Adam Eidinger, the activist who spearheaded Initiative 71. “And we had a victory. For 15 minutes I guess it looked like as of Jan. 5 you could use cannabis in a nightclub without fear of arrest, or fear [of prosecution on the part of] the business owner. Now we’re back to the same spot. It’s just stupid.”
Eidinger added that the councilmembers who voted to approve the ban were acting on “irrational fear” and a “war-on-drugs” mentality. However, he said he and other activists will be working closely with McDuffie, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary, which may still amend the regulations (it hasn’t been voted out of the committee yet). Eidinger said he’s also scheduled to meet with Bowser and the Drug Policy Alliance soon to address their concerns.
“Today showed there’s disagreement; that sets up a good compromise situation,” he explained. “I’m a supporter of [Bowser], I gave her money, but I can’t see supporting her in a few years again if this is the kind of legislation we’re getting. We can work with not letting D.C. turn into Amsterdam. We’re just asking for a place to meet and gather.”
“I am more optimistic today, despite us losing.”
Update 4:20 p.m.: In a conversation with City Desk, Allen says he “has no problem with the concept” of cannabis clubs, but was concerned that the District doesn’t yet have the legal infrastructure to regulate them. “I view it as an emergency stop-gap,” he says of the extended ban. “There’s a lot of compelling arguments [for the existence of the clubs]…and we got a commitment [from McDuffie’s judiciary committee] that permanent legislation would move.”