The D.C. Council narrowly passed the first reading of a permanent ban on private pot clubs April 5 by a seven-to-six margin, leaving the marijuana lobby seething as the bill inches closer to becoming law.
Though the bill must still clear a second vote in order to land on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) desk for approval, the decision marks a departure from the Feb. 2 unanimously passed compromise, which upheld a temporary ban for up to 225 days but established an exploratory task force to investigate the feasibility of allowing cannabis clubs in Washington, D.C. The task force was scheduled to meet for the first time April 22.
When Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) motioned to table the vote until after the task force completes its work in September, the measure was defeated by Councilmembers Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). The same seven councilmembers later voted in favor of the permanent ban.
At the hearing April 5, Nadeau said the legislation, which was implemented before the task force had met, interferes with the force’s purported work.
“While this body established a task force in good faith, to vote today to establish a permanent ban and tie the hands of the task force,” Nadeau said. “This legislation would actually prevent the work of the task force.”
Critics of the ban claim a prohibition of pot clubs constrains users to consuming cannabis in their homes, which poses problems for residents whose leases forbid the possession of marijuana, potentially driving them to illegally smoke in public spaces. Privately owned restaurants, nightclubs and musical venues, which are open to the general public, face confiscation of their business licenses if owners knowingly serve patrons consuming marijuana.
Since Initiative 71 went into effect February 2015, District residents over 21 can legally possess and consume up to two ounces of cannabis. Just a week after its legalization, however, Bowser introduced emergency legislation banning all marijuana consumption outside private residences, a measure repeatedly renewed by the D.C. Council through emergency and temporary bans, most recently in February.
Adam Eidinger, who spearheaded Initiative 71, argued that the permanent ban represents a regression that could be potentially irreversible. Eidinger pointed to a congressional omnibus spending bill passed in December 2014 that prohibited the allocation of any District funds to legalizing or reducing penalties for marijuana possession or consumption.
“First we’re treated like children by Congress when they’re the actual children, and then we’re bowled over by politicians who think they know better,” Eidinger said. “Chairman Mendelson is standing in the middle of the path to legalization, and he is blocking us at every turn. He doesn’t care that people are arrested for smoking marijuana outside their homes outdoors, when cigarette use outdoors is perfectly legal. He doesn’t care that medical patients are living in public housing and they have leases that prevent them from smoking weed on the premises even if they have a legitimate medical condition.”
However, at the April 5 hearing, Mendelson defended his vote in favor of the ban, stating that the task force would not be constrained by the decision.
“The duties of the task force are broader than has been portrayed by those who wish to defeat this bill,” Mendelson said.
Though Eidinger maintained that the vote should have occurred after the task force was able to meet, he expressed skepticism that it will fairly present its findings due to the mayor’s influence over the task force.
“The task force is rigged, because it’s set up so the mayor really controls the task force,” Eidinger said. “The mayor keeps pointing to the task force as ‘Look, we’re doing something about it, but we’re still going to ban them [private pot clubs].’”
Bowser’s office did not respond to The Hoya’s requests for comment.
According to The Washington Post, Bowser affirmed her support for the ban on pot clubs as she watched the Council vote at the legislative meeting.
“They are doing the right thing,” Bowser said.
However, Kaitlyn Boecker, policy associate for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates for drug reform, said the ban on private pot clubs would exacerbate racially imbalanced drug enforcement policies in D.C.
According to the DPA, African Americans constituted 82 percent of the 259 arrests for public marijuana consumption in the District between July 2014 and the end of 2015, despite the fact that they represent 49 percent of D.C. residents and consume cannabis at rates comparable to those of their white counterparts.
“The racial disparities in public consumption arrests highlight the need to create safe venues for residents to consume marijuana, but such spaces will be forbidden if the permanent ban passes,” Boecker said in a DPA press release April 5. “If the council moves forward with the ban, they are all but guaranteeing that the disproportionate arrests of black residents will continue.”
While D.C. is embroiled in a political dispute over acceptable locations for cannabis consumption, the Drug Enforcement Agency is considering plans to reclassify the drug entirely. Under current DEA policy, marijuana falls under a Schedule I designation, along with substances such as heroin, LSD and methamphetamines.
DEA guidelines describe Schedule I drugs as the most dangerous of all drug schedules, as they incur potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.
In a letter to senators signed by DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg and sent April 4, the agency outlined its plans to potentially assign marijuana a new classification by midyear. While rescheduling the drug may not impact its legality in states where it is prohibited, the new categorization could result in reduced penalties for marijuana offenders and fewer restrictions on research.
“We support research on marijuana and its components that complies with applicable laws and regulations to advance our understanding about health risks and potential therapeutic benefits of medications using marijuana or its components or its derivatives,” the letter states.