The Council of the District of Columbia unexpectedly tabled a bill initiated by Mayor Muriel Bowser to permanently ban private cannabis clubs Tuesday, unanimously agreeing to uphold a temporary ban lasting no more than 225 days.
The ban includes an amendment establishing a seven-member task force that will investigate the feasibility of allowing cannabis clubs in the District.
Under current D.C. law, possession of marijuana is legal in quantities of up to two ounces for adults aged 21 or above. However, pot consumption is prohibited in all areas open to the public, including private bars, restaurants and social cannabis clubs, leaving few possibilities for pot usage beyond one’s residence.
Bowser currently reserves the right to revoke the business license or certificate of occupancy of any establishment that knowingly services patrons who use the drug on its premises. Advocates of citywide marijuana use argue that the ban restricts marijuana consumers who do not wish to use the substance in front of their children or whose rental leases forbid pot usage.
Drug Policy Alliance policy associate Kaitlyn Boecker said that removing the city’s restriction on pot clubs would permit lower-income families to assume the same rights as their wealthier counterparts. Since only 19 percent of D.C.’s poorest residents own their own homes, Boecker argued that rental leases forbidding marijuana consumption disproportionately affect lower-income people.
“The city is basically telling these residents that you have the right to use marijuana, but they’re not going to give you any space to do so, so basically they’re forcing you to risk doing pot in the street and get arrested,” Boecker said. “It’s an untenable situation, and it’s not a good public policy decision. You should not tell people that something is legal and then not give them the space to enjoy that right.”
The decision follows a series of reversed council rulings and congressional restraints that have dogged marijuana legislation in the District since Initiative 71 first passed. After roughly 65 percent of voters approved decriminalization, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill in December 2014 for D.C. that forbade the allocation of any District funds to enacting laws or regulations to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties for marijuana possession or consumption.
With limited latitude in regulating marijuana without resorting to reserve funds, Bowser proposed emergency legislation in February 2015 to bar pot usage in private cannabis clubs, resulting in a temporary ban. The D.C. Council considered instituting a permanent ban as the legislation was set to expire on Jan. 15, but deliberations for the bill have been postponed as a result of the unanimous vote Feb. 2.
The newly established task force, which includes representatives from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, the Department of Health and the Metropolitan Police Department, will issue a report within 120 days advising a course of action for the D.C. Council.
Adam Eidinger, a marijuana advocate who spearheaded the successful November 2014 referendum that legalized pot through Initiative 71, said that, although he wishes the task force included members of the cannabis user community, he views the council’s decision as a victory for pot proponents.
“It’s beautiful that not a single councilmember wanted to oppose this,” Eidinger said. “I would be very surprised if what came out of this task force is a recommendation that we cannot do pot clubs here in D.C. We wouldn’t even have a task force if they didn’t think this was a reasonable thing to try and figure out.”
Boecker added that she hopes the task force will examine existing models of cannabis clubs in Alaska, Colorado, Spain and the Netherlands during its research.
“There are a lot of models that this task force can explore and our hope is that it will get them to take a thoughtful, studied, public policy approach to this,” Boecker said. “I think it’s fairly clear that we need these spaces and these spaces will allow like-minded people to legally congregate.”
The Mayor’s Office declined to comment but affirmed that it is reviewing the council’s proposal and working with stakeholders on both sides of the issue.
Founder and President of Georgetown Students for D.C. Statehood Annie Mason (COL ’16) said Congress’ involvement in D.C.’s marijuana legislation has warped the execution of Initiative 71.
“All of the legal issues surrounding marijuana policy in D.C. would be resolved if Congress affirmed D.C.’s ability to govern itself and the U.S. ratified an amendment to establish D.C. as a state,” Mason wrote in an email The Hoya. “Initiative 71 was passed with well over a majority of the vote, but certain members of Congress acted paternalistically and not in the best interest of D.C. residents to try and prevent the efficient and reasonable implementation of policies outlined in Initiative 71.”
Georgetown has maintained a zero-tolerance policy toward marijuana despite its legalization in the District. The Code of Student Conduct expressly prohibits the possession, use, manufacture or distribution of marijuana.
Celine Calpo (COL ’19) said that D.C. should investigate integrating marijuana use into existing drug locales in the city.
“The definition of what the city considers public and private is very problematic,” Calpo said. “I don’t see why the city can’t regulate cannabis clubs in the same way that it does in hookah bars or vape lounges, where there are legal psychoactive substances but they’re in a controlled environment.”
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