Justice

Last-Minute Vote Keeps DC’s Ban On Marijuana In Private Venues

CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS: DYLAN PETROHILOs

On Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. City Council briefly agreed to let the ban on marijuana use in privately owned businesses expire. But soon after, several council members reversed course and voted to extend the ban for another 90 days. As a result, poorer residents are still unable to reap the benefits of legalization because there are few places for them to consume it.

After a ballot measure passed in 2014, D.C. joined the growing list of cities and states to legalize marijuana use. Initiative 71 went into effect last February, allowing people over 21-years-old to legally grow and consume weed in their homes, and possess up to two ounces in public. Days later, the city council passed emergency legislation proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser that banned consumption in private venues, including restaurants, bars, and social marijuana clubs.

That ban was set to expire on January 15. And on Tuesday, the five votes needed to let it expire were secured. But minutes later, the debate to extend the emergency legislation was reopened, and council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Ruby May (D-Ward) changed their votes and extended the ban. As in the past, Mayor Bowser urged the council to hold off on loosening D.C.’s marijuana legislation, because Congress strictly prohibits the city from regulating pot use.

Marijuana policy advocates have argued that the ban in privately-owned spaces undermines what D.C. residents voted for in 2014. It also means that low-income people — who generally don’t own homes — have even more limitations placed on them.

Pot consumption is strictly prohibited in public housing, meaning poor people can still be punished for using recreational or medical marijuana in their homes. And for low-income residents who are lucky enough to own a residential property, acquiring the tools to grow their own product — reflectors, ballasts, lights, and exhaust fans — is costly.

That means legalization in D.C. remains an economic justice issue. Historically, the most heavily-policed areas in the city are neighborhoods where poor people of color live — even after D.C. decriminalized the drug. While marijuana arrests have plummeted in the last year, restricting pot consumption in low-income neighborhoods keeps a target on poor people’s backs.

“Today’s vote absolutely hurts low-income people who live in public housing,” Adam Eidinger, the person who first proposed Initiative 71, told ThinkProgress. “Even if they’re a very sick person with cancer, AIDS, or fibromyalgia, they’ve got nowhere to go without risking their house. Using marijuana at home, knowing you can be evicted, is not relaxing.”

In December, Eidinger was one of many D.C. residents who pushed for legislation that would explicitly allow consumption in private businesses. While today’s city council vote extends the ban, he is optimistic that D.C.’s leadership will ease restrictions in public places. No council members voted against the ban last March. Today, six people did — two of whom changed their minds due to pressure from the mayor. In the near future, when the final bill to determine where marijuana can be consumed in the city is passed, proponents of marijuana use outside of the home could score a huge victory.

Executive Director Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) believes that permitting marijuana in privately-owned “public” space is the next step towards full legalization. According to St. Pierre, none of the four states where recreational marijuana is legal allow people to light up in public venues. An initiative to do so could have advanced in Denver, but its funders pulled it from the ballot because it did not have enough support at the time. If D.C. were to pass legislation to treat marijuana like alcohol in restaurants, social clubs, and bars, it would be the first state or local government to pass such a law.