This story has been updated to reflect that the 9:30 Club does not have a designated smoking area.
For a brief time Tuesday, the D.C. Council embraced a new, much more relaxed version of marijuana legalization, voting to allow pot smoking at rooftop bars, sidewalk patios and most any other place a city resident declared to be a private pot club.
That lasted just about 30 minutes. After appeals from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who argued that there would be no way to rein in open pot use once current restrictions were lifted, the council reversed itself.
But several lawmakers said their change of heart could be short-lived, and the council agreed to reconsider the issue within four weeks. That leaves open the question of how the council, Bowser and perhaps Congress will resolve a major disagreement about how lenient the city should be in regulating the smoking of pot in public.
“I don’t know if it would have been as catastrophic as people say,” said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is typically one of the council’s most conservative members but voted to lift the restrictions, saying that partial legalization already had led to open smoking in various parts of the nation’s capital. “It really lit a fire under everybody to come up with these regulations and to address the issue.”
A majority of the council appeared poised to support a major change in what the city’s marijuana legalization law looks and feels like — to the delight of those who want a legal way to smoke pot in private clubs and other establishments. “We are heading toward some sort of social-smoking exception, and that’s what we really want,” said Adam Eidinger, who helped lead the successful ballot-measure fight for legalization in 2014. “Pot is all about having a good time — and it’s better with friends.”
Under the ballot measure, D.C. residents and visitors 21 and older can possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow it at home. But Congress blocked the city from adopting laws to regulate buying and selling — meaning those activities remained illegal.
To prevent the formation of unregulated pot-sharing organizations, Bowser sent legislation to the council prohibiting marijuana at nightclubs, private clubs and virtually any other business registered by the city.
The council unanimously approved the ban and, until now, seemed intent on keeping its residents’ marijuana use as low-key and private as possible.
The first of the council’s votes Tuesday would have sent the District into uncharted territory, allowing businesses to determine in just 10 days their own rules for pot use on their properties.
The second vote, held after a round of urgent calls to council members from Bowser, set the clock ticking on an effort to come up with a new plan before the council votes again on extending the ban Feb. 2.
Bowser, who is not looking for a fight with Congress on this issue, vowed through a spokesman to continue to lobby to keep the ban in place. Until Congress frees the city to fully regulate pot sales, her spokesman said, Bowser believes the ban is the best way to preserve the intent of voter-approved Initiative 71.
“The law remains clear: Small amounts of marijuana are legal for adults for home grow and home use,” spokesman Michael Czin said.
What a new set of rules concerning pot consumption in the city might look like remains unclear.
Under congressional restrictions placed on the city after passage of the ballot measure, the District is barred from appropriating any local tax revenue to enact or enforce looser marijuana laws. Failing to extend the ban, Bowser said, would therefore lead to “an unworkable system of pot clubs, with no way to regulate its sale or consumption.”
Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who started the effort to quash the mayor’s ban, said it runs counter to the voters’ intent to legalize marijuana, as Colorado and some other states had. Nadeau told colleagues that eliminating the ban would mark a new willingness by the Democratic-majority council to confront a Congress controlled by Republicans — especially after a year in which Republicans in the House attempted to block new local protections in the city for those seeking abortions.
A chance for confrontation with Congress motivated council member David Grosso (I-At Large) to join Nadeau in voting against a ban. But Nadeau’s opposition also tapped into broader unease among D.C. lawmakers over how the city has navigated its first year of marijuana legalization.
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said the ban inadvertently promotes pot smoking in private homes, potentially around children, and discriminates against those who live in federal public housing because marijuana remains banned there. In some of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, where those complexes are located, residents are still most likely to face arrest for smoking outside, city statistics show.
But council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the District risked becoming the “Wild West” of marijuana clubs without the ban. She said pro-pot groups could rent out a warehouse, invite hundreds to a party “and we’d have no way of stopping children from entering,” she said.
Democratic council members LaRuby May (Ward 8) and Charles Allen (Ward 6) initially voted against the ban. As the mayor began calling council members on the dais, Allen asked to reopen the discussion and said he would change his vote. May, a close ally of Bowser’s ,, also reversed course.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), head of the judiciary committee, is now in charge of drafting a potential compromise. He said that he remains skeptical about how the city could regulate pot use outside the home but that he remains “open to a discussion” with advocates and the six colleagues who voted against extending the ban.
Eidinger said the District could further restrict pot distribution, still allowed by Congress, by tightening the meaning of “remuneration” under the ballot-measure law.
That, he said, would clear up any confusion and expressly prohibit providing monetary donations or services for marijuana.
In exchange, however, Eidinger also wants the city to allow restaurants, clubs, concert halls and other businesses to be rented out for private events that allow marijuana consumption in designated smoking areas.
He suggested a restaurant — like Marvin, near 14th and U streets, which has a rooftop bar with a designated smoking area — or the 9:30 Club, which currently does not have a designated smoking area. On select nights, anyone entering those establishments would consent to potentially being around others smoking marijuana. Or maybe all the time, “I think some establishments would go marijuana-only,” he said.
Nadeau said she would also push for the city to take more aggressive steps to use loopholes to regulate pot sales and to loosen penalties for those with patrons caught smoking marijuana. Currently, one violation can lead to a business losing its operating license.
Bowser is scheduled to meet with Eidinger and representatives from national pro-marijuana groups next week.