Pubdate: Sun, 31 Jan 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis


When aging Grateful Dead members and their fans broke into song at 
Verizon Center late last year, a cloud of marijuana smoke rose from 
the audience. Under D.C. law, the collective exhale constituted more 
than enough for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to swoop in and shut down the 
city's marquee sports arena - not just for the night, but permanently.

The fact that she did not, or even threaten to, has emerged as 
Exhibit A of why the city's rules on when and where people can smoke 
pot have become unworkable and in need of change, say D.C. Council 
members and other critics of the mayor's law. They argue that because 
Bowser has never exercised the powers she sought a year ago to shut 
down a business large or small for public consumption, the law is 
effectively a sham and should be changed.

But this week, Bowser (D) will ask the council to make her powers to 
do so permanent. Bowser has warned that without such authority, 
Amsterdam-style pot clubs could spring up across the city and it 
would have no power to regulate them because of restrictions from Congress.

Several council members disagree. They say that with polls showing 
over half of the city's 670,000 residents now routinely encountering 
pot smoke, corralling use into clubs would be better than having it everywhere.

Hanging in the balance is the uncertainty for thousands of business 
owners over how to carry out shifting pot laws. Bowser also faces 
potentially long-lasting political ramifications: Less than a year 
after standing up to Congress and implementing legalization, which 
many saw as a key victory for the young mayor, Bowser now risks 
losing control of city policy on a defining social issue of her term.

"The train is moving - it's something that can't be stopped," said 
D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large). "The people went 
through a lawful procedure to get this approved . . . so you have to 
give the people what they want."

The battle in the District follows fights underway in Denver and 
Oregon about acceptable levels of public pot use, which has emerged 
as the next frontier for marijuana advocates in places where 
possession has been legalized. But in the nation's capital, it comes 
with the added complication of further putting the liberal city at 
odds with its overseers in a Republican-controlled Congress, which 
has forbidden Bowser and the council from going further to enable its use.

On Saturday, council members were privately rounding up support for 
competing amendments to gut the mayor's ban, potentially sending the 
city on a first-in-the-nation experiment toward regulating cannabis 
clubs. Another proposal circulating Saturday would reduce penalties 
for smoking pot in the city's bars and restaurants, and a third would 
scrap the mayor's authority altogether in hopes of forcing a 
confrontation with Congress over whether the city has the power to 
fully tax and regulate pot, as states do.

Orange, an ally of the mayor's, said that on Tuesday, he will propose 
a plan to end her ban and have the city license one pot club in each 
of the District's eight political wards. The amendment appeared to 
have the support of nearly half the council, which is in favor of 
some loosening of city law.

This week's showdown is Round 2 for Bowser to maintain the ban. For a 
brief time this month, the council voted to let her rules expire. 
Bowser rushed in, and the council reconsidered but promised to 
revisit the issue within a month.

If Bowser's opponents on the issue are successful, it would 
dramatically shift the delicate line the mayor has tried to walk on 
legalization since last February. Then, she said the city would move 
forward with the letter of the ballot measure, which allowed 
possession of up to two ounces, home cultivation and private use.

Orange's plan would rewrite that, setting up a city task force to 
decide where, when and how eight businesses- and possibly more in the 
future - could convert to allowing pot consumption on their premises.

Orange and others say doing so would not only give advocates for 
social pot use outlets to gather and smoke, but also get some pot 
smoking out of homes, where it can still put poor residents in 
federal housing complexes at risk of eviction and expose children to 
secondhand smoke.

The plan would also give the city a way to test how strongly Congress 
will continue to oppose legalization.

In an attempt to prevent the District's ballot measure from taking 
effect in 2014, House Republicans inserted language in a budget bill 
banning the city from spending any money to further loosen marijuana laws.

Bowser let it go forward, maintaining that the law was already 
written by passage at the ballot box and required no money to 
implement. But the text of the ballot measure did not prescribe a 
regulatory plan for taxation and sales, so the congressional ban made 
it off-limits for the District to do so.

Orange's measure would allow for regulated businesses to allow pot 
smoking in areas reserved for those 21 and older.

His proposal would force the city to take a calculated risk that 
there is a buffer between what Congress clearly prohibited in loosing 
its drug laws and having the city regulate building codes and 
operating hours for establishments where a now-legal substance, under 
city law, can be used.

To do so, however, his measure would require a companion effort to 
change the city's smoking laws, allowing an exemption for pot smoking 
at the eight cannabis clubs akin to those for the city's handful of cigar bars.

Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) has been coordinating 
with Orange to introduce that.

She has been working with council lawyers to frame the bill as a 
tightening, rather than a relaxing, of city smoking laws, which might 
run afoul of the congressional ban. Her amendment would require 
increased ventilation and one-way entrances and exits for new indoor 
smoking facilities, among other changes.

"The irony is I don't even smoke. For me, this is an autonomy issue," 
she said. "The argument from the mayor is we don't want the wild, 
wild West. But in the absence of nothing, we need something."

Asked whether the mayor could support the plan for eight cannabis 
clubs, Bowser spokesman Michael Czin suggested that she could not. 
"Our concern has always been about national marijuana businesses 
setting up shop in neighborhoods like Trinidad, Woodley Park or 
Barracks Row. I don't foresee how the council can address that issue."

Still, other council members are agitating for broader change. Some 
are pushing for the council to back a controversial tactic to do an 
end run on Congress and pass a law authorizing the sale and taxation 
of the plant. Under a theory advanced by attorneys who advocate for 
D.C. statehood, the District could use local surplus revenue not 
accounted for by Congress to pass such a law.

Council member Jack Evans( D-Ward 2) said he would introduce an 
amendment Tuesday to repeal at least the part of the mayor's ban that 
can lead to a business being permanently closed for a single instance 
of someone using pot.

Evans acknowledged that could open the door to more public use, but 
he said it was unfair to put business owners' livelihoods at risk if 
someone lights up if and when the law is enforced.

That could have been the case at Verizon Center the night of the Dead 
& Company concert in November.

Asked about the heavy use of marijuana during the concert, Kurt Kehl, 
a spokesman for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which runs Verizon 
Center, said: "Were patrons violating our smoking policy? Yes. Were 
we attempting to enforce our policy? Yes."

Some of those in violation, in fact, were in Bowser's skybox. That 
night, the mayor had given her suite to advocates for marijuana legalization.

Asked whether the invitation to the group undercut the mayor's 
argument for the ban, Czin said he "strongly disputes" that idea. 
Whether or not guests of the mayor smoked in her suite, "the mayor is 
serious about this bill."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom