DC Council Votes to Ban Private Cannabis Clubs

Any dreams by cannabis entrepreneurs and enthusiasts of creating an Amsterdam on the Potomac were thwarted Tuesday after the D.C. Council voted 7-6 to permanently ban private cannabis clubs in the District of Columbia. Legalization advocates and one Council member called the move “a slap in the face” to a public task force established to study the issue.

Tuesday’s vote cemented a temporary ban in D.C. of private cannabis clubs and social use in the District that was approved by the Council in February. However, the timing of the vote rankled some members of the Council, which also voted unanimously that month to form a task force to study the effects of legalizing marijuana use in private businesses. The Council voted only hours before the task force’s first public meeting Tuesday evening.

“We’re supposed to be planning for the present, not the future,” Council member Brianne Nadeau, also a member of the task force, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re dealing with an issue that’s happening today. The timing of this vote is a slap in the face of those of us trying to do that work.”

The effect of establishing the ban prior to the task force’s conclusions “would be to predetermine outcomes and tie our hands and the District hands,” Nadeau continued. “We’re used to Congress tying our hands, but why do it ourselves, especially since we already have a temporary ban in place until September?”

After D.C. voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in 2014, Congress passed a budget rider blocking the D.C. government from establishing any sort of framework to regulate and tax marijuana.

Council chairman Phil Mendelson said the timing of the vote was not an attempt to undermine the task force. He said that while the congressional rider was still in effect, the District should maintain its current system until it has the autonomy to establish a regulatory scheme.

“Until we have that ability, we should maintain the status quo,” Mendelson said. “The delay gains little but more delay […] I know we will be revisiting this. I don’t feel that we’re tying our hands at all. The time to move forward with that legislation is now.”

A solid seven-vote majority of the Council voted earlier in the month to advance the permanent ban, and that majority held firm again on Tuesday.

Nadeau said in an interview that she will now focus her efforts on the task force. She also called the ban’s enforcement provisions “draconian,” noting they allow the District to revoke business permits for a single violation.

Kaitlyn Boecker, national affairs policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement that “by passing the ban, the Council is voluntarily handing over control of local marijuana policy to Congress, limiting its ability to legislate, and permanently revoking patient rights.”

In addition to cannabis clubs, legalization advocates said the policy would also place new restrictions on medical marijuana patients, who under the District’s laws were allowed to consume physician-recommended marijuana in medical treatment facilities.

“It’s unthinkable that our city, which first acted to protect medical marijuana patients back in 1998, is now preparing to criminalize medical marijuana patients and punish those who show patients compassion,” Boecker continued. “Unanticipated consequences like these are why the District must rely on its Mayor-appointed task force to study marijuana consumption, rather than hastily push through an unnecessary, poorly-written blanket ban championed by prohibitionists.”

DCMJ, the organization behind the D.C. legalization initiative, slammed the vote and vowed action to oppose it.

“We’ve heard grumblings from a couple cannabis activists that they’ll have a smoke-in right in the D.C. Council chambers if they pass the permanent ban on Tuesday," reads a post on the organization's website. "Since they have no legal place to consume cannabis, they said they might as well light up in the Council chambers to make the point that adults deserve places to consume cannabis away from children or outside on the sidewalk, where they’d risk arrest.”

DCMJ also posted draft language for a possible ballot referendum that would overturn the ban on private clubs.

(Photo Courtesy of GrassyHutt.com)

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