(J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press file)

D.C. pot clubs came tantalizingly close to fruition, then plans vaporized

Mayor Muriel Bowser slows city council on lifting restrictions on public consumption, citing an 'abyss of deregulation'

WASHINGTON — District of Columbia council member Charles Allen had just voted his conscience Tuesday. It didn’t matter anymore, he thought, if pot clubs formed in the nation’s capital. The freshman lawmaker decided at the council meeting that nearly a year after the city legalized marijuana, there was good reason to give D.C. residents discreet places to smoke away from home, where it wouldn’t happen around kids.

Then his cellphone vibrated on the council dais. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was on the line, and she pleaded with him to change his vote, he said. “She said in very clear terms that the city and the police department were not ready for this,” Allen said.

So Allen (D-Ward 6) reversed his vote, along with one other council member, and agreed to reconsider the issue within four weeks. That still leaves open the question of how the council will resolve a major disagreement about how lenient the city should be in regulating the smoking of pot in public itself.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press file)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press file)

Bowser a year ago surprised the city in her first weeks in office with a forceful showdown with Congress over legalizing pot. The new mayor had not campaigned on the issue, but she seized on it and made it her own. But Bowser vowed to enact the will of seven in 10 voters who had supported a pro-pot initiative, and she did so over threats of jail time from House Republicans, winning standing ovations all over the city.

But less than a year later, a messy and public scramble on Tuesday by the mayor to keep intact – perhaps just for 90 days — a package of restrictions against public pot smoking showed something else. Bowser is no longer in full control of the issue, and, in fact, risks slipping behind fast-shifting public sentiment in favor of greater acceptance of legalization in Washington.

Bowser has promised not to let pot smoking become an embarrassment in the nation’s capital, even making deals with pot advocates to keep clouds of marijuana smoke from rising over the Mall in her first year in office. She also has grand ambitions, after years of corruption scandal hanging over the District’s city hall, of making the mayor’s office a greater force on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, she has vowed to use marijuana policy as a vehicle to press for D.C. residents’ voting rights with federal overseers, and recent polls show even more residents think Congress should back off and the city should be allowed to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana, 74 percent, than support legalization itself, 69 percent.

On Tuesday, however, Bowser called both friend and foe on the council; close aides in the room with her and lawmakers who picked up her calls said her driving motivation appeared to be more immediate. Whether by fault of her own or the council – and Bowser most definitely blamed the council – the city was poised to leap into an abyss of pot deregulation that it might never pull out of, she repeatly warned lawmakers.

“We did not want the current law to go up in smoke without a clear sense of what would happen when it did,” said Bowser’s chief of staff John Falcicchio. “If we’re going to have a conversation about what the future of legalization looks like, let’s have that conversation, but that shouldn’t happen by just allowing what we have in place to expire.”

D.C. police chief Cathy L. Lanier said the police department remains poised to enforce whatever decision the council and mayor decide on pot clubs, but she added that legalization and assorted extensions of that legislation ought to have continued oversight by residents.

“We have dealt with whatever the legislation has been put into law. The role of the police department is to enforce the law on the books. We’re going to enforce those laws,” Lanier said. “There needs to be some very careful vetting by what is passed by the community. This is something that needs to have more discussion.”

Congress last year handcuffed D.C. into a tortured state of partial pot legalization. It couldn’t stop the city from declaring pot legal based on the ballot measure, or from letting residents grow it or share it. But it barred the district from spending any local tax revenue to write or enforce regulations to govern the sale and taxation of the drug. Several conservative Republicans in the House said they feared Colorado-style marijuana dispensaries popping up in sight of the White House or even adjacent to the FBI.

Still, ambiguity in the local ballot law that was enacted by Bowser and the council could have allowed European-style pot clubs to form, in which residents and visitors could pay membership for access to places to smoke, legal experts said. And the ballot measure was silent about whether clubs, music venues or even religious institutions could allow smoking on their properties.

To prevent their formation, Bowser sent legislation to the council on Day 1 of legalization last February, prohibiting marijuana consumption at virtually any registered business. A single violation, the mayor warned, would lead to a business losing its ability to operate. The result has been a lack of gathering places for pot smokers but a gray market that has sprung up in the city, daring entrepreneurs to accept “donations” to various causes in exchange for gifts of pot or even straight-up bartering for the plant. D.C. police have made only one arrest — a pair that blanketed luxury vehicles with pictures of pot, and parked on major city thoroughfares taking donations for pot-laced brownies and other edibles. Many more low-key operations continue.

Council member David Grosso (I-At large) said he sees an unwillingness by Bowser and leaders of the council to confront Congress more aggressively on the issue. “Where’s the outrage?” he said of the status quo. He and council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) are advocating for the most aggressive and controversial option available to the mayor and council: They want the city to exploit a loophole in federal budget law to let the city fully regulate the sale of marijuana. That would call for using surplus money from past budget years that is not explicitly appropriated by Congress to pay for writing and enforcing new marijuana regulations.

Council chair Phil Mendelson (D), however, said he is inclined to go along with continuing Bowser’s proposed ban on pot clubs. “I haven’t heard any complaints” about the way things are going, he said.

The council has four weeks to work out a compromise, before a vote to extend Bowser’s ban or let it expire this spring. Falcicchio said the city would not be in the quandary if council member Kenyan R. McDuffie, D-Ward 5, had taken up the issue earlier last year as head of the judiciary committee.

Council member LaRuby May, D-Ward 8, who is a close ally of Bowser’s and who is up for reelection this spring, initially opposed a ban on pot clubs but then reversed course on Tuesday amid lobbying by the mayor. She remains a possible swing vote on the issue next month. May did not return phone calls and a text Wednesday seeking comment.