A bill to permanently ban marijuana smoking in private clubs in the nation's capital revealed deep divisions on the liberal D.C. Council as lawmakers try to balance the will of the pro-pot electorate with restrictions imposed by Congress.
Possession of up to 2 ounces of pot for home consumption has been legal in the District of Columbia since early last year. Congress has blocked the city from any further liberalization of its marijuana laws, and Mayor Muriel Bowser worked with the Council to quickly pass legislation that temporarily banned smoking anywhere outside private homes.
However, advocates said there was room to carve out an exception for smoking pot in a restricted number of public places, such as businesses with designated smoking areas or clubs that charge a membership fee.
A bill to permanently shut the door on that possibility advanced out of committee on Wednesday only after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson sat in and used his vote to turn a 3-2 vote against it into a 3-3 tie.
"It's really an abuse of his authority,'' said Council member Jack Evans, a fellow Democrat who led the push against the bill. "He didn't need to vote.''
Mendelson said it's not at all unusual for him to vote in committee on contentious issues and said Evans was only complaining `"because he lost.''
Bowser's administration and Police Chief Cathy Lanier support the permanent ban, although Michael Czin, the Democratic mayor's spokesman, said she would continue to listen to advocates' concerns.
Evans said he would try to amend the bill before the full Council. He said officials who want a permanent ban on smoking outside the home aren't listening to voters who approved a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana by a 2-to-1 margin.
"The will of the people is to be able to smoke marijuana in a much more expansive way than the law now allows,'' Evans said.
Congress has already banned the city from taxing and regulating marijuana, and Mendelson said that without the ability to regulate pot smoking at clubs or businesses, "we ought to continue with the status quo.'' He also said voters who endorsed the private use of marijuana didn't envision pot clubs.
But pot advocates said the ban would be a capitulation to Congress.
"It is time for the District's elected officials to stand up to Congress and stop submitting to misguided prohibition policies,'' said Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance. "District lawmakers should finish the process of legalizing marijuana that voters started.''