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Marijuana Advocates Push Back Against D.C. Effort to Ban Pot Use In Bars & Clubs

D.C. residents can legally possess marijuana, but are limited to their homes if they want to grow or smoke it.
D.C. residents can legally possess marijuana, but are limited to their homes if they want to grow or smoke it.

The group that succeeded in getting marijuana possession legalized in the nation's capital last year is now fighting a new battle: a bill backed by Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the D.C. Council that bans clubs from allowing patrons to consume marijuana on their premises.

The ballot initiative approved by D.C. voters in Nov. 2014 allows residents to possess small amounts of marijuana in public — but limits use and cultivation to their private homes. But shortly after legalization took effect in March, the Council passed an emergency measure clarifying that the public places where marijuana use was prohibited included private clubs.

Now Bowser wants to see the prohibition made permanent. She and other supporters say it is a simple means to stop so-called "cannabis clubs" from popping up throughout the city. They worry that without the bill, private clubs could host events and allow people to use marijuana — and neighbors would have no means to stop it.

"As Mayor Bowser has repeatedly said, the District's marijuana laws are intended to allow for the 'home grow, home use' of small amounts of marijuana by adults over the age of 21 in their private residences," says Matt Orlins, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Orlins says that no businesses have been cited for allowing patrons to use marijuana, and credits the emergency bill passed in March. "We believe the law is having its intended effect, and the mayor supports enacting the law on a permanent basis," he says.

But Adam Eidinger, who led the effort to legalize marijuana, says he will fight the bill when a Council committee debates it on Thursday.

"It's unnecessary. The current law prohibits any venue from selling marijuana or promising marijuana in exchange for admission. But what they're doing with this bill is banning any kind of use of use outside the home. There's a big problem with that, because there are lots of people who have nowhere to use their cannabis," he says.

Like the poor, he says, who may live in homes or apartments — like public housing — where using marijuana is prohibited. And he warns of unintended consequences, such as private homes where people could gather to smoke marijuana.

"You can regulate use better in a public place. We're not asking for thousands of locations, this is just a matter of the places that want to let people use marijuana on the premises would be able to say yes," he says.

Over three-dozen people are scheduled to testify at Thursday's hearing, many of them aligned against the bill. But they face tough odds: in March, the bill passed the Council unanimously. That included Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has introduced a measure that would allow the city to regulate and tax the retail sale of marijuana. That bill has been blocked by Congress.

“I was considering not supporting the permanent version of this bill. But the tenor of advocacy from the advocates for marijuana legalization has really bothered me. I am now firm in my belief that we need to have these kinds of safeguards in place since we aren’t able to pass legislation for full taxation and regulation," he says.

But even if he fails to stop it, Eidinger says he has a trump card to play: A threat to push two more ballot initiatives, one to allow marijuana to be treated the same as tobacco, and another to impose a two-term limit — applied retroactively — on members of the Council.

"It's rolling back rights and freedoms we already have," he says of the bill.

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