- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The D.C. Council on Tuesday extended an emergency measure in the District’s marijuana legalization law that bans private pot-smoking clubs. The ban was set to expire on Jan. 15.

The 90-day extension was approved in a 9-to-4 vote after the council had rejected the measure and then reopened debate on it at the behest of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Democratic council members LaRuby May of Ward 8 and Charles Allen of Ward 6 then changed their votes in favor of the extension.

Council members Brianne Nadeau, Ward 1 Democrat; Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat; David Grosso, at-large independent; and Vincent Orange, at-large Democrat, opposed the measure.

Supporters of the extension said it would clear up the law’s vagueness on the difference between a public and private space.

The city’s marijuana legalization, which went into effect last year, allows residents at least 21 years old to grow, consume and possess limited amounts of cannabis in private residences. The public consumption of pot is outlawed, as are the sale and distribution of the plant.

The ban forbids private clubs from holding events where groups of people can get together and consume marijuana.

The Metropolitan Police Department “and others had serious concerns about enforcement, and we must make the law clear as to what ‘the public’ actually meant,” said Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat and supporter of the bill. “The public includes a private club.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democratic, joined Mr. McDuffie in support of the legislation, saying the provision is needed to remove ambiguity from the law. Mr. Mendelson also said he hadn’t heard much public outcry about banning private cannabis clubs.

“I’m not aware that there has been tremendous upset from the public other than a few who want to open clubs and want to profit from it,” he said.

Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said she approved the provision only as a way to allow for debate on private clubs without leaving in place the law’s vagueness on the issue.

“We need to have a task force to address this and provide a legal infrastructure,” Ms. Cheh said. “Let’s leave emergency legislation in place, but only if we move forward on a plan to provide legal infrastructure for private clubs.”

Opponents listed a host of reasons for allowing private clubs to operate, ranging from not allowing the council to subvert the will of residents to giving a space for parents and low-income residents to enjoy pot legally.

Mr. Evans said residents in low-income housing aren’t allowed to consume marijuana in their apartments, and some parents want a place to legally smoke without having to do it around their children.

“People need a place to smoke marijuana when they can’t do it in their own home,” he said. “We should put together [a] task force to address this. In the meantime, we shouldn’t leave this prohibition in place.”

A ban without specific provisions wouldn’t be good for small businesses, Ms. Nadeau said.

“Closing down a small business if one person is found smoking marijuana is a draconian law,” she said. “Reissuing a blanket ban is not the way to address the issue.”

Though marijuana advocates were pushing to get the bill voted down, some said the fact that there was vigorous debate on the issue means the door isn’t closed to private clubs.

“What I saw today was real democracy,” said Adam Eidinger, who heads the DC Cannabis Campaign. “Council members were thinking for themselves, not just taking orders from the mayor.”

Mr. Eidinger said that Mr. McDuffie was gracious in acknowledging the concerns of those in support of private clubs.

Mr. McDuffie said he plans to introduce permanent legislation on the legality of private cannabis clubs.

“It was a roller coaster ride, and it was unpleasant, but I’m optimistic,” Mr. Eidinger said.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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