The Council of the District of Columbia has scheduled a vote today on legislation that restricts adult marijuana use in the District, prohibiting marijuana consumption everywhere but the home. The legislation is opposed by a majority of District residents and a growing number of councilmembers who oppose limiting consumption of marijuana to private residences, favoring instead the creation of regulated places where adults can legally consume marijuana. Since 2014, nearly 82% of all arrests for public consumption in the District have been of Black residents. Advocates have voiced concerns over these disparities, and also warn the Council not to cede more control of local marijuana policy to Congress.
“Despite the Council’s unanimous approval of a task force to study regulated venues for marijuana consumption just eight weeks ago, and the fact that passing a permanent ban voluntarily limits the District’s sovereignty and its ability to legislate, Chairman Mendelson continues his personal vendetta against marijuana reform,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “By pushing forward with a blanket ban the Chairman is aligning himself with prohibitionists, at the expense of local autonomy and contrary to the wishes of a majority of District residents.”
The vote on the private club consumption ban comes as advocates have voiced concerns about significant racial disparities in arrests for public consumption in the District. Public consumption of marijuana became a misdemeanor criminal offense in the District on July 17, 2014. Between that date and the end of 2015, there were 259 arrests for public consumption, 212, or 81.9%, were of Black people. This is despite the fact that Black residents only make up around 49% of the District population, and use marijuana at similar rates to White residents. Though legalization of marijuana through Ballot Initiative 71 resulted in an unprecedented drop in marijuana arrests, leaving the criminalization of public consumption intact has perpetuated racially-biased enforcement, a long standing problem in the District and a principle driver of the campaign to legalize marijuana.
The Council has considered this issue multiple times this session, and after strong opposition identical ban legislation has been withdrawn and amended. Most recently, on February 02 the Council moved to create a taskforce to explore the establishment of regulated venues for consumption, and to temporarily extend the ban for 225 days. This afternoon, 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. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has opposed holding off on the permanent ban and has pushed the bill through the council in a move advocates say dilutes the will of D.C. voters and limits the District’s local autonomy.
“A blanket ban on marijuana consumption in all venues except a private residence will perpetuate the disproportionate effects of drug war policies on low-income residents and communities of color. The racial disparities in public consumption arrests highlight the need to create safe venues for residents to consume marijuana, but such spaces will be forbidden if the permanent ban passes,” said Boecker. “If the Council moves forward with the ban, they are all but guaranteeing that the disproportionate arrests of Black residents will continue.”
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 blocked D.C. lawmakers from using locally raised public funds to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol.
Shortly after Initiative 71 took effect, Mayor Bowser and the Council passed emergency legislation banning all marijuana consumption outside a residence. This ban has been extended through emergency and temporary measures, but the vote today would make it permanent. 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 venues for the consumption of marijuana.
Date Published: April 5, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance