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D.C. Council takes on medical marijuana, arts commission reappointments in meeting

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) at the Wilson Building in June 2020. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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The D.C. Council on Tuesday took on medical marijuana, the city’s troubled housing authority and voted to reappoint four of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s nominees to the city’s arts commission, bookending days of uproar over fairness and race on the committee and a public feud between Bowser and the council’s chair over two of her nominees.

Bowser (D) in May nominated five members to the commission, which operates a nearly $40 million budget and is tasked with promoting and developing the city’s art sector. And while commission chairman Reginald Van Lee’s nomination was approved rapidly by the council, four of Bowser’s reappointments — Kymber Lovett-Menkiti, Gretchen Wharton, Natalie Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry — have lingered for months in a committee council chair Phil Mendelson (D) oversees without a hearing.

Without council action, these pending nominations would have been ruled disapproved Wednesday. Mendelson placed two of the commissioners’ nominations on the council’s agenda for Tuesday but left off Barry, the widow of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, and Hopkinson, a professor at Howard University. They have both been vocal about addressing inequities in the arts in D.C., including what Hopkinson has called “separate and unequal arts policies.

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While supporters say they have been instrumental in advancing policies to strengthen the commission’s focus on diversity and equity, Mendelson has characterized Barry and Hopkinson as divisive.

In support of the two nominees, council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) successfully utilized a rarely used legislative tool to “discharge” Barry and Hopkinson’s nominations from Mendelson’s committee, forcing the council to consider them for a vote. Both of their nominations were approved on a 12-to-1 vote, with Mendelson voting no.

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Council members debated several other measures Tuesday, including an emergency bill from Mendelson that removes hurdles to access medical marijuana. The legislation extends the validity of medical cannabis cards that expired as early as March 2020 until February, allows the city’s Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration to raise the amount of cannabis a patient can carry from four ounces to eight ounces, and permits ABRA to issue medical cards that last for two years rather than one.

Mendelson said licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in the District have lost business to unregulated pop-up shops that “gift” marijuana to customers, circumventing the District’s laws. Congress, which oversees D.C. laws, has long prohibited the recreational sale of marijuana in D.C., though there’s hope that restriction could be soon be lifted.

During the pandemic, Mendelson said, some medical marijuana cardholders were unable to renew because of limited government services, causing them to turn to pop-up shops, which are cheaper and do not pay sales tax.

He had initially attempted to include language in the bill that expanded D.C.’s tools for civil enforcement against businesses that illegally sell or gift marijuana, but removed the clause Monday after he faced pushback from industry advocates and pop-up business owners. Mendelson said he may propose a measure strengthening civil penalties at a future meeting.

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“I feel very little sympathy for these black market entrepreneurs who are violating the law,” Mendelson said Tuesday. “The medical side is seriously hurting … but I recognize we need to come to an agreement.”

Also on Tuesday, the council passed an emergency measure introduced by council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) that would provide private-sector workers with paid time off to get vaccinated for the coronavirus or to vaccinate their children. The bill provides two hours for the injection and up to eight hours for recovery for each shot — up to 48 hours over the course of a year.

The legislation will not cover government employees nor D.C. Public Schools or charter schools, Silverman said, because of the complexity of school schedules.

“We need to remove any obstacle to vaccination,” Silverman said, noting that some low-wage workers had expressed to her office that could not afford to take a time off to get vaccinated. “We can do something to remove that barrier.”

The council unanimously approved an emergency bill from White that gives the D.C. inspector general the ability to investigate the D.C. Housing Authority without the approval of the council. It comes after the council last month requested the inspector general to launch a probe into the public housing agency for a “pattern of misconduct” that included allegations of conflicts of interest, contracting irregularities and abuse of power.

In the weeks before the council’s call for a probe, D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas had repeatedly requested the council’s permission to investigate DCHA, noting that he could not do so unless “specifically requested by the Council” — which White characterized as a unique quirk in D.C.’s code.

White said he planned to introduce a permanent version of this legislation later this year.

“The council must act today to strip this unique, and perhaps unintended protection from the housing authority,” White said, “and subject the authority to the same review of the Inspector General as exists for almost every other agency of the government.”

Peggy McGlone contributed to this report.

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