Supporters of more liberal marijuana laws on Thursday delivered dramatic pleas that a temporary District law that bans consumption of the drug in private clubs be allowed to expire.
If the ban remains, the District would be punishing the poor, the sick, children and many others, the advocates said, because the law effectively eliminates any loopholes allowing for marijuana use outside a private home. That leaves those who rent, are visiting or who live in federally subsidized housing without a “safe” space in which to partake, marijuana activists said.
“This unjustly penalizes District residents of lesser means,” said Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance, who said the bill reflected “a prohibition mind-set.” Without a sanctioned space to use the drug, she said, the bill could lead to increased criminalization.
The District legalized marijuana nearly a year ago, after a popular referendum. But congressional oversight forced lawmakers to prohibit its sale and limit the drug’s legal use to people over 21 smoking or ingesting it within the confines of their own homes.
A temporary law, passed by the D.C. Council in March, sought to clarify the ban on using the drug in public spaces by counting private clubs — which, according to the Bowser administration, would include membership organizations, like the kind that exist in Colorado — as public places.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is now seeking to make that law, which will expire in January, permanent.
So on Thursday, two dozen marijuana enthusiasts, users and advocates lined up to make their cases before the council’s Judiciary Committee Chairman, Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), on why that shouldn’t happen.
They pointed to the use of medical marijuana to treat chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia and other conditions, arguing that the mayor’s bill would deprive the sick of a place to use a drug that has been legally prescribed. Some pointed to District venues such as hookah bars and rooftops, where it is legal to smoke cigarettes, as logical venues for marijuana consumption. Others said they wanted to see legal “cannabis clubs” that would function like ordinary bars, or group meetings that could provide a measure of therapy.
“It saddens me that we are trying to ban like-minded sick people from banding together,” said Paige McCormick, who lobbied for marijuana’s legalization in the District.
Several activists argued that the bill hits the city’s poorest residents the hardest. Those living in federally subsidized housing are prohibited under federal law from smoking pot indoors. Landlords can also evict tenants for using it.
“You’re telling cancer patients in public housing: ‘Go risk arrest outside where you can’t use your medicine,’ ” said Adam Eidinger, who chaired the D.C. Cannabis Campaign. “You’re essentially saying to homeless people: ‘You’ve got nowhere to use marijuana? Go to jail if you use it on the street.’ ”
Melinda Bollinger, who heads the District’s Department for Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and who testified at the hearing on behalf of the Bowser administration, said it was precisely because of the vague nature of the city’s existing law, when it comes to defining public space, that the mayor’s amendment is necessary.
The District’s marijuana laws are meant to allow for “home-grown, home use,” she said. “A private club is a place to which the public is invited and therefore not a place where marijuana can be consumed legally.”
McDuffie noted that opponents of the bill believed that it was too broad.
“How would the administration distinguish between clubs to which the public is invited and private clubs?” he asked. And where would a group of friends fit in? “Would groups of friends at private residences who meet weekly to smoke continue to be permitted in your estimation?” he asked.
Bollinger paused, and then said: “Yes, as long as it’s a private residence.”