Hawaii Cannabis logo

The Council of the District of Columbia has scheduled a final vote Tuesday on legislation that would permanently prohibit adult consumption of marijuana everywhere but a private residence.  Advocates warn that final passage of this bill will undermine existing laws that protect medical marijuana patients and yield more control over local marijuana policy to Congress, in direct contradiction of calls by Mayor Muriel Bowser and other DC lawmakers for greater autonomy from congressional oversight of DC affairs.  This legislation is opposed by a majority of District residents and a growing number of councilmembers who instead favor the creation of regulated places where adults can legally consume marijuana.

“It’s unthinkable that our city, which first acted to protect medical marijuana patients back in 1998, is now preparing to criminalize medical marijuana patients and punish those who show patients compassion. Unanticipated consequences like these are why the District must rely on its Mayor-appointed task force to study marijuana consumption, rather than hastily push through an unnecessary, poorly-written blanket ban championed by prohibitionists,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “By passing the ban, the Council is voluntarily handing over control of local marijuana policy to Congress, limiting its ability to legislate, and permanently revoking patient rights.”

Since 2010, medical marijuana patients in the District have been allowed to consume their physician-recommended medication in medical treatment facilities. Currently, the District’s medical marijuana laws protect patient consumption “at a medical treatment facility when receiving medical care for a qualifying medical condition, if permitted by the facility.” This allows hospitals to treat their patients with compassion. In example, a patient receiving chemotherapy could be allowed to consume physician-recommended marijuana tincture to alleviate nausea.  The bill before the Council tomorrow overrides those components of the medical marijuana law, jeopardizing this legal protection for patients and treatment facilities. If allowed to pass, under the new law, medical marijuana patients who consume their medication (in any form) anywhere beyond a private residence could be subjected to a criminal misdemeanor penalty of up to 60 days imprisonment for public consumption. A patient’s status as a registered medical marijuana patient in the District would not serve as a recognized defense.  Similarly, the legislation before the Council tomorrow would hold liable any medical facility that allows patient consumption, as the Mayor is required revoked the certificate of occupancy license of any facility that permits consumption on its premise.

The Council has considered similar legislation prohibiting marijuana consumption in any place beyond a private residence multiple times this year.  In January, identical legislation was withdrawn amidst strong opposition among Councilmembers. On another occasion, in February, Councilmembers agreed to compromise on the issue by passing a temporary version of the legislation that is now in effect, creating a Mayor-appointed task force to explore the establishment of regulated venues for consumption and deferring consideration of permanent legislation until task force recommendations were issued later this year. Despite this compromise, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson scheduled the permanent version of the legislation for a first vote on April 05. The bill passed narrowly, 7 votes to 6.  On Tuesday, Councilmembers are expected to offer a motion to table the permanent ban in order to allow the Council to consider a full range of legislative options, after the task force has issued recommendations on marijuana clubs in the District. Chairman Phil Mendelson has opposed delaying the permanent ban and has pushed the bill through the Council in a move advocates say limits the District’s local autonomy.

“If the Council passes this legislation they will be permanently damaging our medical marijuana program, rolling back rights for patients and those who care for them, and ceding District autonomy to Congress,” said Boecker. “Our elected officials make bold promises when it comes to District autonomy and residents’ rights, but their actions undermine Home Rule and send a signal to Congress that we accept losing control of critical policy reform without objection.”

Initiative 71, which was overwhelmingly approved by District voters in 2014, legalized the possession of up to two ounces marijuana for adults over the age of 21, and allowed individuals to grow up to six plants in their home. I-71 did not place any restrictions on adult marijuana use, and did not limit consumption to the home. D.C. laws prevented the ballot initiative from addressing the taxation and sale of marijuana, which requires action by the D.C. Council. However, Congress passed an appropriations rider in 2014 that has blocked D.C. lawmakers from using locally raised public funds to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, or enact additional legislation that reduces marijuana-related penalties under D.C. law.

Shortly after Initiative 71 took effect in February 2015, Mayor Bowser and the DC Council passed emergency legislation banning all marijuana consumption outside a residence. The Council has since extended this ban through emergency and temporary measures, but the vote on Tuesday would make the ban permanent, and the congressional rider would prevent DC lawmakers from revisiting the permanent ban so long as the rider remains in effect.  The legislation would limit adult marijuana use in the District and require the revocation of a business’ license after a single instance of marijuana consumption by a patron on the premises. Recent polling shows widespread support among District voters for creating regulated venues for the consumption of marijuana.

Date Published: April 18, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance