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D.C. Council Lifts Ban On Private Pot Clubs, And Then Changes Its Mind

Marijuana is legal in D.C., but it can only be used in private residences.
Marijuana is legal in D.C., but it can only be used in private residences.

The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted to lift a 10-month-old ban on private marijuana clubs in the nation's capital, but quickly reversed course after Mayor Muriel Bowser insisted that the city does not currently have the capacity to license or regulate the clubs.

The ban was unanimously approved last March, only days after Initiative 71 — which legalized the possession of pot, as well as its use and cultivation in private residences — took effect.

At the time, Bowser and members of the Council said the ban was needed to clarify that the initiative only made legal the use of marijuana in homes, not in private clubs or any public places.

Under the ban, private clubs — "any building, facility, or premises used or operated by an organization or association for a common avocational purpose, such as a fraternal, social, educational, or recreational purpose" — were defined as being places where the public could be invited. As such, marijuana use was prohibited.

But in recent months, legalization advocates pushed to let the ban — which had been passed as temporary measure — expire. They argued that residents should be able to gather in private clubs to consume marijuana, and that the ban discriminated against residents of public housing, who by federal law cannot use drugs in their homes.

During Tuesday's debate, Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) agreed with them.

"I believe the [ban] as written is unnecessarily broad. We should give people a space to safely consume cannabis outside the home," she said.

Five other legislators sided with her, giving the advocates enough votes to lift the ban.

But after a first vote was taken, Bowser's office argued to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson — who favored keeping the ban in place — that the city would have no means to license or regulate the clubs upon the ban's expiration next week. Another vote was called quickly, and the ban was revived on a 9-4 vote. It will remain in place through the rest of the year, unless superseded by a permanent version.

One of the legislators who changed his vote was Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who said he would let the ban remain in place provided the Council soon debate a permanent version of the ban. Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Council's judiciary committee, said he was planning on such a debate in February.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) also said that a broader debate on whether pot clubs should be allowed was necessary. "What we need is legal infrastructure for this to happen in a way that makes sense, not a Wild West," she said.

Despite the back-and-forth vote, some pot advocates expressed optimism that the Council could eventually vote on a bill that would allow private pot clubs to exist.

"It's amazing to win something in the Council and then 15 minutes later you lose it. We are optimistic nevertheless that we can get a compromise going here," said Adam Eidinger, who led the effort to legalize marijuana in D.C.

While the Council could eventually legalize private marijuana clubs, it remains limited in further legalizing marijuana. In late 2014, Congress banned the city from passing any laws that could legalize the sale of marijuana. That ban was again included in the federal spending bill approved late last year.

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