The District will begin studying whether to license private pot clubs under a measure that the D.C. Council approved Tuesday, potentially giving residents and visitors places to gather and smoke marijuana socially in the nation’s capital as early as next year.
The council action amounted to a compromise between allies of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had sought to continue a complete ban on pot clubs, and a growing contingent of council members who had threatened to override the mayor and approve a plan to license clubs. Such an effort, they contended, would more fully implement a voter-approved ballot measure in 2014 that legalized pot in D.C.
The District action further aligned it with a vanguard of mostly Western cities, including Denver, where lawmakers are wrestling with how to accommodate fast-shifting public sentiment in favor of greater social pot use. That question has become the next frontier in jurisdictions where voters have already legalized possession.
In a heavy day of legislating, the council also compromised with Bowser to extend her summer jobs program to include young people ages 22 to 24 for two more years. But the council mostly rejected Bowser’s proposed answer to last year’s 54 percent spike in homicides.
The mayor had asked for authority to conduct warrantless searches of repeat violent offenders and take other tough-on-crime measures. But the council unanimously approved a plan by Judiciary Chairman Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) that proposes treating crime as a public health emergency, even including stipends to encourage some young men to stay out of trouble.
It was the council’s unanimous vote to push forward on studying pot clubs — after unanimously banning such enterprises 11 months ago — that was most surprising. Several members said they were driven to back the effort to study pot clubs out of concerns that current D.C. law, which limits smoking to private homes, had begun to expose more children to secondhand marijuana smoke. Others said widespread disregard for a ban on public consumption in the year since legalization had led to unacceptably high levels of pot use on city sidewalks. Clubs, they said, could corral some smoking behind closed doors.
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), the principal author of the compromise, said the unanimous council vote would “keep momentum alive” for the city to address discrimination in its current marijuana law, including the fact that poor residents in public housing can still face eviction for smoking at home.
The measure passed Tuesday was designed to tiptoe around a congressional ban on the District taking steps to further loosen penalties on pot consumption or spending city money to begin to tax and regulate pot sales.
It establishes a task force to recommend how the city would go about allowing business owners to apply for licenses to open pot clubs. It maintains the complete ban Bowser sought on pot clubs for 225 days while the task force develops those recommendations.
The council did not specify a number of possible clubs, but in debate, members made clear they would ask task force members to recommend how to open a handful of clubs, perhaps one in each of the city’s eight wards, or one per quadrant.
The vote thrust the thorny issue of continuing to shape the look and feel of marijuana legalization in the District back to Bowser, who will control a majority of the task force appointments.
Some council members had openly accused Bowser’s administration of lax enforcement of a ban on public pot smoking in the year since legalization. Last month, the council also voted to let expire a package of emergency powers she had sought to close businesses for pot use. Lawmakers said the law had become a sham since it hadn’t been used once.
Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), a co-author of the measure that passed Tuesday, said she was elated that the council reached a unanimous opinion to push toward clubs. Because the task force has four months to meet, she said, the compromise means the city “doesn’t rush into anything.”
Bowser spokesman Michael Czin, who had earlier said the mayor probably couldn’t go along with clubs, said Bowser was “reviewing” the council action.
On crime, the council went further in rebuking Bowser. Lawmakers unanimously backed a broad crime-prevention bill that McDuffie labeled a “public health approach.” It would provide job-training and counseling services, reform police training and oversight, and bring social workers and psychologists into emergency rooms and police units across the city.
The bill would also replicate a controversial California program that pays some residents to not commit crimes. A new office of neighborhood engagement would identify residents most at risk of committing or being victims of crimes and pay them stipends of as much as $9,000 to attend behavioral health programs and participate in life-planning, mentorship and other curriculums.
The mayor — who last month said McDuffie’s legislation “failed to include any provisions to combat crime” — has not committed to paying for the initiatives included in the bill, which could cost $25.6 million over four years.
The council rejected a last-ditch effort by Bowser’s office to insert a provision into the bill that would stiffen penalties for violence committed aboard Metro trains and buses.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a Bowser ally and the newly named chairman of the regional Metro board, urged the council to increase the penalties to show Washington-area residents that the government takes crime on Metro “seriously.”
“We are about to pass landmark crime legislation, and we are not going to address one of the biggest issues that we face in our city today,” Evans said during a Council breakfast meeting before the legislative session. “What is the harm in making a statement that this mayor is very concerned about what happens?”
But a large majority rejected the idea at the urging of McDuffie and others, saying the move would do little to stop crime.
The mayor’s office reluctantly struck a deal with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to expand the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program to allow 1,000 22-to-24-year-olds to participate each summer over the next two years.
Bowser, who has been seeking to permanently raise the age limit for participants in the six-week program, secured a temporary expansion last summer.
Some council members, including Mendelson and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), have pushed the mayor’s office to present evidence that the program, which places youth in summer jobs and activities including camp counselor positions, office work and SAT classes, helps the youth secure full-time work.
The city is under pressure from the federal government to show that it is using federal dollars effectively to advance year-round job training efforts. In recent years, the District has failed to spend tens of millions of dollars allocated for workforce development, and it’s currently the only jurisdiction in the country that the U.S. Department of Labor labels a “high-risk” partner in job training and development programs.
Mendelson said limiting the program’s expansion to two years for the time being “will keep pressure” on its administrators to ensure that it is meeting federal workforce development goals.