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Continuing Efforts to Legalize Marijuana Lounges in DC

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The continuing debate over whether to allow marijuana lounges or private marijuana clubs in jurisdictions that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana surfaced again this week, and this time it was the subject of two different votes by the City Council of the District of Columbia.

In a strange development on Tuesday, the DC City Council first legalized the smoking of marijuana at certain rooftop bars and sidewalk cafes, where cigarette smoking is currently permitted, and in private clubs; and then 30 minutes later, reversed itself, extending the current ban for an additional 90 days.

The Status of Legalization in the District

For those who may not follow DC politics closely, let me briefly summarize the current marijuana laws in the District. We have legal medical marijuana in DC, including five licensed medical marijuana dispensaries; and the possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana has been totally legalized for adults for recreational purposes (and the cultivation of up to 6 marijuana plants inside the home).

But to date, we have no legal recreational marijuana retail outlets. Congress used their control over the District budget to ban the legal sales of marijuana in DC. One must either grow their own marijuana in their home, or purchase it on the black market. (Technically any adult can give, for no remuneration, up to one ounce of marijuana to another adult in the District, but for obvious reasons, this is not an option that helps many consumers!)

Venues Where Marijuana Can Be Smoked Legally

And, as a result of that fear of Congressional interference with DC affairs, we also do not yet have legal venues where marijuana smokers can gather to socialize and enjoy their favorite herb in a social setting. Currently the only venue where the use of marijuana is legal in the District is a private home.

When marijuana was legalized in DC via voter initiative in 2014, Mayor Muriel Browser quickly asked the City Council to bar marijuana smoking at nightclubs, private clubs and virtually any other businesses licensed by the city. The council approved the ban, thinking it would be judicious to refrain from (literally) blowing smoke in the face of members of Congress who oppose legalization.

Because the District is not a state, and Congress retains the right to reject any legislation adopted by the City Council, including budgetary matters, our local elected officials have learned to avoid confrontation, when possible, with the Congress. Under restrictions enacted by Congress following the approval of the legalization initiative, the city is barred from appropriating any local revenue to enact or enforce more lenient marijuana laws. Mayor Browser was understandably concerned that without the ban, the city would expose itself to “an unworkable system of pot clubs, with no way to regulate its sale or consumption. “

The first vote on Tuesday would have allowed businesses to determine their own rules for pot us on their premises; and the second vote, held 30 minutes later, following a round of urgent calls to Council members by Mayor Browser, kept the existing ban in place until Feb. 2nd, when the matter will be revisited by the Council.

But the issue is far from settled. Several Council members, including some who reversed their vote when urged to do so by the Mayor, have indicated they may switch their vote again, and approve marijuana smoking at private clubs and certain bars, when the council revisits this matter again early next month.

Some on the Council said the current restrictions are unfair to those who live in federally subsidized housing, and thus have no legal place where they can smoke marijuana; and others on the Council saw the fight as another opportunity to push back Congress, that all-too-often likes to interfere in DC affairs.

So while marijuana clubs and lounges are not yet legal in the District of Columbia, it is quite possible that within a few weeks, the nation’s capitol may yet become the first jurisdiction in the country to permit marijuana smoking in a social setting. And that would surely give positive reinforcement to similar efforts underway in the other legalization states.

Marijuana smoking is a social activity, and there is absolutely no valid public policy justification for banning the use of marijuana at private clubs and bars and restaurants that currently permit cigarette smoking.  It’s time as consumers we demand this right; we should not permit the prohibitionists to limit our smoking only to private homes.

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