On Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. Council voted to permanently ban any social consumption of marijuana other than inside a private residence, despite a public forum being scheduled that evening to explore the merits of continuing the ban.
Among the concerns voiced by activists is that the ban forces people who live in public housing, where consuming marijuana can lead to eviction, to break the law by smoking in public. This policy predominantly impacts poor people of color in the District, and many residents think that allowing social use clubs would go a long way toward addressing this issue. There may be options to overturn the ban, however.
Numerous people brought up the racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests, which continues even in the era of decriminalization and legalization—81.9 percent of the 259 public consumption arrests from July 17, 2014 (when public consumption became a criminal offense) to the end of 2015 were of black people, according to data from the Drug Policy Alliance.
Kate Bell, an attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that the ban isn't the end of the road. "There are other avenues D.C. could explore," she told DCist. "We're not just talking about clubs. It's a much broader issue."
Nikolas Schiller of DCMJ has already written a draft referendum on the ban. But it's an open question whether the referendum, if passed, could be implemented given the Congressional rider that hamstrings the city's ability to regulate drug legalization. Bell says that MPP is working to ensure that the rider doesn't appear in next year's Congressional budget.
Residents can express their views at the ballot box. Information on registering to vote is available here, and if you are already registered you can update your information online here. Stay tuned: MPP will be publishing a voter guide before the June 14 primary election. Note that if you want to vote in a party’s primary election, you must be registered as a member of that party at least 30 days before the primary election.
Also, the Local Budget Autonomy Act may allow the District to tax and regulate marijuana using its own local funds this winter, after the new fiscal year begins. In addition, it is always possible for the mayor to use reserve funds to tax and regulate marijuana.
Finally, MPP will be attending the National Cannabis Festival on Saturday; stop by our booth and say hello if you are there.
A survey release this week by Public Policy Polling showed that 66% of voters in the District of Columbia support Mayor Muriel Bowser pursuing legal methods to allow D.C. to regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol despite a Congressional ban.
Voters overwhelming approved Initiative 71 in 2014, which made marijuana legal in the nation's capital, but Congress passed a budget rider that prevents the implementation of regulated commercial cultivation and retail establishments. Provisions related to personal possession and limited home cultivation were unaffected by the law and are currently legal in D.C.
This poll shows that the vast majority of D.C. voters would support the mayor using reserve funds to implement a system to tax and regulate marijuana. This would not only show that D.C. rejects Congressional interference with the will of the voters, but also bring the illicit marijuana market out of the shadows and reap millions in tax revenue.
In addition, 61% of voters are in favor of giving adults a safe and lawful place to consume marijuana outside their homes. Supporters including MPP met with the mayor last week, and she said she was open to working with us and our allies on the D.C. Council to move forward on a compromise that would end the blanket ban on use outside the home, currently set to expire on April 13. This will help restore the rights that D.C. voters supported when they voted yes on Initiative 71.
Even though marijuana is legal for adults to possess and grow in the nation's capital, the only legal place to consume it is in a private residence. Public consumption was not made legal by voters when they approved Initiative 71 in 2014, and the D.C. Council passed an emergency measure that also made consumption at any non-residential private event or location illegal. After hearing complaints from business owners who wish to allow marijuana use their private functions and advocates who noted that a lack of options forced low-income consumers to break the law in order to avoid jeopardizing their public housing, the Council decided to lift the emergency ban.
Minutes later, several council members changed their votes.
Washington Post reports:
The D.C. Council briefly opened the door on Tuesday to legalizing the smoking of marijuana in specially designated areas of public restaurants, music venues and private clubs, by failing to extend a ban on such activity that was put in place when pot was legalized in the city last year.
Within minutes, however, the council reopened debate on the measure, and extended the ban on smoking in private clubs for 90 days.
Council members Ruby May (D-Ward) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) changed their votes after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he had just heard from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who was urging the council to continue the ban because the city would have no ability to license pot clubs that may spring up.
It is too bad that Mayor Bowser does not see how making these private gatherings legal will allow the city to regulate them much more quickly and effectively, and that illegal operations will proliferate in the vacuum created by this ban. Fortunately, there is still time to address the issue.