After just five days of pot being legal in the nation’s capital, the D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve new limits on marijuana use.
The legislation introduced last week by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) prohibits smoking in bars, clubs and virtually anywhere outside a private home where people could gather.
Although Bowser stood up to Congress last week and legalized marijuana over threats of jail time from House Republicans, the mayor immediately asked for the new curbs. She said they are needed to close a loophole in a voter-approved ballot measure that could allow clubs with membership fees and access to the drug to form in the city.
Passage of the legislation amounted to the most controversial development since Bowser declared marijuana legal at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. There were no arrests the first night of legalization, and over the weekend more than 1,000 people peacefully attended a cannabis expo blocks from the U.S. Capitol aimed at teaching entrepreneurs how to profit off the city’s newly legal intoxicant.
But proponents of the city’s measure blasted the mayor’s legislation as overly broad and said it violated the intent of the ballot measure that D.C. voters approved overwhelmingly in November.
Adam Eidinger, head of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, said the restrictions rendered void an agreement that he struck last year with Bowser to try to prevent public displays of marijuana smoking in the District that might provoke opponents in Congress. That deal helped the city’s deadline for legalization pass last week with none of the fanfare or images of groups smoking in public that kicked off legalization in Colorado and Washington state.
“I see no reason not to protest with a massive smoke-in for communal use,” Eidinger said in a tweet Tuesday morning shortly before the vote. In another, he said: “Your emergency bill @MayorBowser ends our arrangement on no public smoke in protests.”
The District last week joined Alaska, Colorado and Washington state in legalizing the possession of marijuana for recreational use. Residents and visitors can possess up to two ounces and can smoke and grow it at home. But Congress last year blocked the city from adopting a regulatory scheme to allow for legal sales of the drug. That has left entrepreneurs searching for ways around the lack of a legal marketplace for marijuana in the city.
Some D.C. lawyers have said the ballot measure left vague whether D.C. businesses could close for private events and allow marijuana smoking on the premises. They also said the initiative could allow for the formation of “cannabis clubs” like those prevalent in Spain, which offer membership fees and access to the drug.
Although Congress in December stopped the District from taking further steps to allow marijuana, nothing prohibited it from imposing additional restrictions.
Bowser’s legislation does just that by defining broadly the public space where smoking will remain prohibited as anywhere the “public is invited.”
That includes, her legislation reads, “any building, facility, or premise used to operate by an organization or association for . . . a fraternal, social, educational or recreational purpose.” The legislation gives the mayor the power to revoke the business license, certificate of occupancy or any other city permit of any business where marijuana is smoked or consumed.
In an interview after the vote, Bowser pointed to a news conference two days before legalization took effect when she first announced her intent to prevent smoking in clubs. In getting the legislation passed, she said Tuesday, “I did what I said I was going to do.”
The emergency measure will remain in effect until summer. It then will require additional council action to stay in effect.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council’s judiciary committee, amended Bowser’s bill to make clear that smoking remains legal in homes and that any permits revoked for marijuana use must be specific to the address where the violation occurred.
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said he would propose amendments to the law in coming weeks to make clear what constitutes someone’s home and private residence for marijuana use and growth, including allowing growing and smoking in greenhouses and garages.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has advocated that the council ignore the congressional prohibition on regulating sales and push forward with doing so, said that until “Congress gets off our backs” regarding regulation, he would reluctantly support the mayor’s proposed restrictions on clubs. They shouldn’t become an unregulated blight on neighborhoods, he said.
Grosso also stressed that the main benefit he sees in legalization — reducing arrests — remains intact. “I didn’t get into this whole debate so I could find ways for people to get high. . . . Frankly, I’m not so sure it’s a great thing. I’m trying to keep people out of jail.”
Eidinger said that approach misses part of the message sent by 7 in 10 voters who approved legalization.
Eidinger warned of another potential conflict: pushing marijuana smoking into homes only. “I feel that people with children, especially in small apartments or even teenagers, don’t want to do this around them,” said Eidinger, who is a parent and says he has never smoked around his daughter. “People should be able to go out, get a babysitter, smoke and then come home and be a responsible parent again.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.