Marijuana has been legal in the District of Columbia since February of last year. But walking around, you would be hard pressed to notice any sign that the weed has indeed been freed. Sure, most any large American city smells like marijuana these days. But unlike other states where pot is legal, there are no retail stores in the District. In fact, it is not only illegal to sell marijuana but also against the law to smoke it anywhere but inside a residence due to emergency legislation passed last year that explicitly bars the use of marijuana in private clubs.
According to the draconian letter of the law, a business can actually be shut down after just one person is caught puffing inside with the owner's knowledge.
Now, Mayor Muriel Bowser is pushing for a law that would keep it that way, infuriating pot activists she once embraced. There's an unusual political twist too, as there often is in D.C., thanks to the unwelcome power Congress wields over the city: A law barring pot smoking in private clubs would be very hard to undo because Congressional Republicans, led by zealous Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, have attached riders to spending bills barring city money from being “used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance.”
D.C. officials have cited that rider as stopping them from setting up a tax-and-regulate system that allows people to buy and sell marijuana. And the emergency legislation barring private club smoking, most recently renewed on January 5, is set to expire on April 13. If a permanent ban is signed into law, it will be difficult to undo because it would amount to the sort of 'reduction in penalties' barred by Congress. And so Mayor Bowser and Councilmembers led by Chairman Phil Mendelson are moving not only to restrict the scope of pot legalization but, according to activists, also doing the unthinkable in D.C. politics: colluding with anti-democratic Congressional interference.
“Once the Council passes this permanent ban, they cannot return to the issue at a later date if they decide to regulate social consumption or take a different approach,” emails Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance. “By passing a permanent ban the Council would be tying their own hands; making the ban permanent is essentially voluntarily limiting future District sovereignty and its ability to legislate.”
Congressional Republicans have long treated the nation's capital as a colonial holding and also as a laboratory for pet causes, including early rollouts of restrictive drug laws, says political historian Kathleen J. Frydl.
"It is no exaggeration to say that federal government used Washington DC as the staging ground for its most failed social policy--our nation's militant drug war--and DC's lack of voting power was its necessary precondition,” emails Frydl. “For Congressman Andy Harris and others like him, DC's enduring subjugation is a mechanism that allows them to impose their own favored plans and, more to the point, to exert autocratic control.”
In 2014, voters overwhelmingly backed Initiative 71, which legalized marijuana in the District. But Republicans on Capitol Hill protested. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, went so far as to warn that Bowser and other city officials could be prosecuted and imprisoned. But Bowser, who took office last year, stood Congress down, staunchly defending legalization and standing up for D.C. home rule: The principal was that regardless of marijuana's merits that the residents of the nation's Congressionally-overseen capital had the same right to democracy as anyone else.
“This is an issue where some people feel very strongly at the Congress, and they are speaking loudly, but our residents also spoke loud and clear last November,” Bowser said at the time. “I’m the mayor. I was elected, and my job was to implement the people’s law. The people changed the law.”
She even sent a leading pot legalization activist, D.C. Cannabis Campaign chairman Adam Eidinger, a low-number license plate emblazoned with “420.” Eidinger had given her a $420 donation during her campaign.
But Bowser was already moving to narrowly limit legalization's reach, and recently twisted arms to change council members minds just after they had voted to allow the temporary ban on private club toking to expire. It's possible that political considerations at play: Angry Congressional Republicans can make life difficult for a D.C. mayor. Bowser spokesperson LaToya Foster insists that the mayor's rationale is practical, saying the pot club ban must be made permanent because the Congressional rider would bar them from regulating them appropriately.
“The Mayor has long supported regulating marijuana like alcohol, but because of Congress our hands are tied,” emails Foster. “Failing to extend the ban would have led to an unworkable system of pot clubs with no way to regulate its sale or consumption. The law remains clear: small amounts of marijuana are legal for adults for home growth and home use.”
Legalization supporters point out the current laws leave some parents and residents of public housing without a place to smoke, and they dispute that disaster would ensue if the private club ban were allowed to expire.
“Why can't people use marijuana communally?” asks Eidinger. “They haven't show a single good reason.”
Activists also contend that there's another, kind of sneaky, loophole that would allow the city not only to regulate clubs but to set up the very sort of fully-functioning tax-and-regulate system that Congress tried to block: because the rider is attached to bills controlling particular D.C. funds, reserve funds appropriated prior to the rider's passage could be used to implement rules and regulations for selling and buying and using pot.
“We are simply trying to implement the will of the voters here,” says Council member Brianne K. Nadeau “In my mind, this is what this is about.”
The bill to make the ban on smoking in private clubs permanent will be on Tuesday's Council agenda. Short of making D.C. the fifty-first state, as Washingtonians have long demanded, activists say that the least local government can do is refuse to partake in Congressional efforts to suppress local democracy and expose residents to unwarranted prosecution in the process.
Multiple amendments to “gut” the bill will be introduced, according to the Post, including to entirely reverse its intent and allow for the creation of private clubs where pot can be smoked. It's unclear if they have the votes to win. But if they do, Nadeau hopes to use those reserve funds to create the regulated system for buying and selling pot that Congressional Republicans are blocking with Mayor Bowser's assistance.