D.C. has legalized the possession of marijuana, but its use in public remains prohibited.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a bill creating a seven-person task force to study whether the city should license private clubs where patrons can gather to use marijuana.
The measure was a compromise of sorts: On one side were Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who were pushing for a bill that would permanently prohibit marijuana use in private clubs. On the other side was a growing contingent of legislators who argued that like-minded residents should be able to gather outside their homes to use marijuana.
In late 2014, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved a measure legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. That measure, Initiative 71, also permitted residents to grow and use marijuana at home, but explicitly banned sales and any use in public — including in bars and restaurants.
At Bowser's urging, last March the D.C. Council unanimously approved a bill specifying that pot could not be used in private clubs, quickly closing what they saw as a loophole in the law that would have allowed a proliferation of clubs geared towards marijuana users. That ban was set to expire in January.
But as the Council started considered making the ban permanent earlier this year, some members questioned whether the city should allow clubs to allow marijuana use. Legalization advocates argued that it would give people a chance to use outside of their homes and settings where children could be present, and offer an option to residents of public housing, where drug use is illegal.
Last week, McDuffie moved the permanent ban out of a Council committee, arguing that lifting the prohibition would mean that clubs would be unregulated and would likely proliferate in lower-income neighborhoods.
"Had [we] allowed the ban to expire earlier this month ... there would be no licensing scheme, no zoning regulations, no building codes or public health standards applicable to private marijuana clubs. [We] assume that clubs would have disproportionately located in the places of least commercial resistance — concentrated industrial areas and buildings east of the Anacostia," he said.
But on Tuesday he agreed to table the permanent-ban bill, allowing the compromise bill creating a task force to move forward.
Ban on clubs remains for now
The task force — which will include members from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the Department of Health and the Metropolitan Police Department — will debate how to license the clubs and where they could be located. (Sales would remain illegal, though people could give each other marijuana.) Some legislators have said that each ward should have one club, though others have said that the market should be allowed to determine where clubs choose to locate.
The task force will have 120 days to produce recommendations. In the meantime, the ban on pot clubs will remain effect through the rest of the year.
Critics of pot clubs say that they would only increase marijuana use among teens. In a press release, the Ward 7 Safe & Drug-free Communities Coalition claimed that a survey it conducted showed that marijuana use had risen since possession was legalized.
But legalization advocates hailed the compromise bill, saying that regulated pot clubs would allow like-minded adults a place to gather outside of their homes.
“The Council has taken the first step towards sensible marijuana policy on social consumption of marijuana in the District, but much more needs to be done,” said Kaitlyn Boecker with the Drug Policy Alliance. “We look forward to working with the task force to develop recommendations establishing regulated places where adults can legally consume marijuana.”