In the latest twist in the District’s struggles over legal marijuana, the D.C. Council Tuesday moved to permanently ban pot clubs in the city, just two months after the body approved a task force to study the issue.
Whether pot can be consumed legally in private clubs is just one of the thorny issues the District has faced since it legalized cultivation and possession of small amounts of marijuana but continued to keep sales of the drug illegal.
The Council in February divided on whether to permanently ban pot smoking in private clubs, so emergency legislation temporarily banned the pot clubs and a task force was formed on how such clubs might operate. The legislation would change the law to say that pot cannot be consumed in private places where the public is invited, such as a nightclub or music venue.
But even as the task force studied the issue, the Council voted 7-6 on Tuesday to make the club ban permanent, though a second vote at the next legislative meeting is required for the legislation to pass.
Several Council members said a permanent ban makes the idea of a study pointless.
“While this body established a task force in good faith, to vote today to establish a permanent ban would tie the hands of the task force,” Council member Brianne Nadeau, a Ward 1 Democrat, said at a Tuesday legislative hearing. “This legislation would actually prevent the work of the task force.”
Council member Vincent Orange, the at-large Democrat who proposed the task force two months ago, said Tuesday’s vote defied the will of the voters who approved legal marijuana in a referendum.
“Why would we undercut the task force and not let the task force do its job?” Mr. Orange said. “I believe this Council is going down a slippery slope once it starts undermining legislation that we passed. These citizens went out and got a referendum. They want us to make sure we exercise our own best judgment not for ourselves but for citizens of the District.”
But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat who voted to approve the ban, said the ban wouldn’t interfere with the task force.
“The duties of the task force are broader than has been portrayed by those who wish to defeat this bill,” he said.
There’s no love lost between Mr. Mendelson and marijuana advocates, who say the club ban discriminates against people in public housing and residents who want to smoke marijuana but can’t in their homes. Since public housing in the District is run by the federal government, it is not subject to local pot legalization laws.
“He’s a prohibitionist,” said Adam Eidinger, who heads up DCMJ, the organization that got the legalization measure on the ballot in 2014. “We’ll work for the next two years to get him out of office.”
Kaitlyn Boecker, a policy analyst with the Drug Policy Institute, said this is not what the voters wanted when the approved legalization passed nearly two years ago.
“It is clear that Chairman Mendelson and [D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser] rigged the process against the people. Initiative 71, which was overwhelmingly approved by District voters, sought to remove marijuana from the criminal justice system and did not restrict marijuana use by adults,” Ms. Boecker said. “The bill passed today ignores those principles.”
It was the second time in two days showcasing the city’s fractured, contradictory approach to legalized pot, where growing, lighting up and even giving away marijuana are all now permitted but where legalized sales are not.
On Monday an Oakland-based company touted a cold-pressed juice delivery service that also brings “free” marijuana to customers in the District.
As a way to skirt the city’s law against selling cannabis — while still taking advantage of residents being allowed to possess up to 2 ounces of pot — HighSpeed is offering to sell residents juice and “gift” them some marijuana with their order.
The company started in Oakland in 2015 and began deliveries in the District of Columbia about two months ago, having already served about 300 customers, according to HighSpeed.
D.C. Police and Karl Racine, the District’s attorney general, did not return repeated emails for comment as to whether the company was operating within the law.
If the District can figure out how to regulate the sale of marijuana — and convince Congress to not butt in — pot businesses could stand to make nearly $100 million by 2020, according to a report by ArcView Market Research and New Frontier. And depending on how the District would set up regulations, that could mean a lot of tax revenue.
Marijuana is set to be a $2.3 billion business by 2020 in Washington state, which legalized both sales and possession of the drug in 2012.
HighSpeed claims the service “is completely legal thanks to Initiative 71.” It’s true that the law allows residents to transfer up to 2 ounces of marijuana to another person, but HighSpeed’s service isn’t quite that simple.
On the HighSpeed website, one can order an $11 cold-pressed juice and add a “donation” that adjusts the price to either $55 or $150. With that donation comes the “free” marijuana.
The prospects for HighSpeed aren’t good, however. Last year Kush Gods set up a similar service of “gifting” pot to people in the District. The company’s owner, Nicholas Cunningham, was recently sentenced to two years of probation for operating the business.
A flourishing D.C. pot industry won’t happen if Congress doesn’t want it to. Since some of the District’s spending is subject to congressional approval, the city cannot enact any laws that will result in added budget lines, which is why legalization was able to be passed. If the District wanted to allow pot sales, they’d have to set up infrastructure, a tax system and regulations, among other things.
But as the issue of legal weed in D.C. expands, the minor details seem to be causing the most uproar. And for pot activists, some recent moves from the D.C. Council are as bad as congressional meddling.
“If [Mr. Mendelson] succeeds, he’s doing the bidding of Congress,” DCMJ’s Mr. Eidinger said.