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Here's Why It's Still Hard To Smoke Pot In Washington, DC

For residents of Washington, DC, voting to legalize cannabis was only the first battle in a long war with the district's legislators. And it was waged on two fronts this week - once at DC city council and once in Congress.

On Dec. 10, a hearing between councillors and activists became heated as both sides discussed a bill that would decide the future of "cannabis social clubs" - venues allowing onsite vaping and smoking - and all other forms of public consumption in the district.

DC voters approved cannabis legalization by an overwhelming 70 percent last November. When the new law came into effect in February, Mayor Muriel Bowser and her councillors unanimously voted on an emergency measure to prohibit use in public and in private clubs. Now they want to make that ban permanent.

Melinda Bolling, the director of DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, says clubs go beyond the scope of the legalization initiative.

"Private clubs would allow individuals to immediately become members and participate in the use of marijuana," she said during the hearing. "We believe that would be against the intent."

The district's activists disagree, and some have made their intentions quite clear. They argued that the ban unfairly restricts residents who don't want to smoke or vape around their kids, and people who live in public housing (which often bans cannabis use).

And one key activist is threatening political retribution if the ban gets passed. Adam Eidenger, who led the district's legalization campaign, pledged to protest the ban by starting two new voter initiatives: the first would allow DC residents to use cannabis in public as freely as tobacco. The second would impose "partially retroactive" two-term limits on councillors. That means current opponents to social clubs could be weeded out of council.

"If DC Council passes this unnecessary legislation," Eidenger warned, ", my organization with more than 10,000 supporters across DC and the region, will be forced to bring [these] initiatives … to clarify what the people want versus the special interests you seem to be serving by even considering this prejudicial and harmful bill to marijuana users and their families."

The war for legal weed is taking place in Congress too

As if dealing with city council weren't enough, Congress is also still trying to slow the process of legalization in DC. Congress has unparalleled legislative control over the district. It can overturn laws passed by DC's elected council, overrule the district's judges and control the city's budget.

In December 2014, Congress used its power to prevent the city from following through with legalization. Legislators attached a rider to the federal budget that prohibited the district from using federal and local funds to, "enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." That means city council couldn't invest in establishing frameworks for taxing and regulating the cannabis market.

But Mayor Bowser defied Congress despite threats of imprisonment by going ahead with legalization. She argued that the rider only prevented the district from rolling out the retail market for cannabis. The budget ploy couldn't stop residents from growing and consuming their own supply, as per the rules of the legalization initiative.

Now the social-club ban puts Mayor Bowser at odds with the very activists, with whom she formed an agreement to support their ballot initiative. But there is still time to work things out: Kenyan McDuffie, the council's Judiciary Chairman, said the proposed ban won't be decided until early in the New Year.

Meanwhile, the retail market remains frozen in the capital. The latest federal spending bill, which was announced on Dec. 15, includes an amendment preventing D.C. from regulating the cultivation and distribution of cannabis.

"Marijuana is now legal for adults in the District of Columbia, and it needs to be treated like a legal product," said Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It is irrational to prohibit DC officials from establishing a regulatory system to control the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. By renewing the Harris Amendment, Congress is posing a real threat to public health and safety in our nation's capital."

h/t Washington Post, Washington Times, JD Journal, NBC Washington, US News, Washington City Paper


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