Narrow Majority Maintains Its Stance in Marijuana Social Club Vote

Say what you will about the District’s convoluted-by-necessity legislative process: it certainly allows councilmembers to vote extensively and repetitively on each issue.

Negotiating the pokey schedule of the passive Congressional review of our laws (which requires our passage of emergency, temporary, and permanent versions of most legislation). Additionally, our own process requires most bills to face two readings, or votes, by the full Council. This results in a bounty of votes on the same legislation.

So, if it seemed like déjà vu all over again when the Council voted on marijuana legislation yesterday, you are correct. In regards to the marijuana social club ban in particular, both votes have included seven councilmembers in favor of the ban, and six in opposition. In regards to a pending task force addressing the social club issue and other topics, the same seven/six split reasserted itself, with the majority stating there was never the intention to postpone legislative votes until when the task force’s work was complete.

Delving Deeper: How to Understand What Happened

To properly understand the legislative context of the marijuana social club issue, you must keep three pieces of legislation in mind: one in the past, one in the present, and one in the future.

The past piece of legislation, or more specifically, a tiny element of much larger legislation, is actually a product of Congress, not the Council. Known as the Harris Rider (after Representative Andy Harris), this legislative language approved in 2014 essentially banned any subsequent District measures that would reduce penalties for drug use.  Think of this as those spikes with a "Do Not Back Up! Severe Tire Damage!" sign next to them. It is fine to continue forward, but you can never go backwards past that original point again. Since the Council’s original marijuana legislation had passed prior to the Harris Rider being in place, it was seen as being settled law. But any subsequent tightening of that legislation becomes irreversible as long as the Harris Rider remains in place.

The present piece of legislation at play here is the social club ban as discussed above.

The future piece of legislation is one that some assume will become law eventually, in some form: a regulatory scheme for the legal sale and/or public use of marijuana. No one knows what form this legislation will take, if at all. What is clear is that it will provide a rigorous and long-deliberated framework for these eventual uses.

Having laid out the three pieces of legislation in question, the second critical element of the marijuana social club ban analysis can be introduced: whether and how they could co-exist.

Needless to say, with the Harris Rider in place, it is difficult if not impossible to envision passage of “regulatory scheme” legislation. However, this is less obvious: the councilmembers who voted for the social club ban were actually first and foremost opposed to allowing a legalization of such clubs to move forward in a vacuum, that is to say, in the absence of the “regulatory scheme” legislation.

Although not extensively discussed from this perspective, yesterday’s vote was as much, if not more, about phasing than about content. Some Councilmembers seemed to think that the Harris Rider might at some point go away, which would then allow consideration of the full “regulatory scheme,” thus rendering an interim legalization of social clubs a piecemeal and unnecessary step. These seven councilmembers (as well as the Mayor and the Police Chief) saw greater peril in a potential future with legal social clubs existing outside of any other legal framework than they did in a complete ban on social clubs for as long as the Harris Rider remains in place. Those on the other side of the issue, fearing a long-lived Harris Rider, were reluctant to see the Council close any doors (in principle or in practice) that it would subsequently (due to Congressional interference) be unable to open again.

In Other Action

In other action at yesterday’s meetings, second and final votes were taken on measures to:

  • Increase the maximum Home Purchase Assistance Program loan amount from $50K to $80K, and to create more progressive repayment options
  • Create a “Made in DC” brand for locally-made products, and increase efforts to market them
  • Increase fines for unauthorized removal of trees, and clarify that all trees on any public land are to be overseen by the District Department of Transportation

Additionally, measures were introduced to:

  • Create a housing “ban the box” initiative (to mirror the employment measure passed recently) to combat discrimination against those released from incarceration
  • Allow the sale of hormonal contraceptives in certain circumstances without a doctor’s prescription
  • Change the slogan on DC license plates to “End Taxation Without Representation,” and create a special pro-statehood license plate that would help raise funds for the cause
  • Create an annual sales tax holiday for bikes and bike-related merchandise on Earth Day
  • Modify the procedures for required property disposition hearings to clarify the timing and agency convening such hearings

For a complete listing of all votes taken, click here.