Like a lot of cities where recreational use of cannabis has been legalized, D.C. is in a cannabis quandary. Actually, a double quandary that illustrates some of the problems with public consumption in other cities and states where recreational use has been legalized.
And the tourists in this town not only notice it – they are becoming part of it.
Public cannabis consumption is a hot item on the agenda in other states that have legalized recreational cannabis, usually after some time has passed from when the actual legalization enactment has occurred, with a squadron of entrepreneurs ready to pounce on the opportunity when it happens. Ideas about bars and entertainment events with a separate but connected entrance for public consumption of cannabis have been floated around. Dispensaries want to attach a public cannabis consumption space. It would be big business.
But getting it to happen is, at best, a long strange trip indeed.
The first states to legalize recreational use – Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington – are addressing the issue more and more as every recreational cannabis consumer is looking for that perfect place to sit and share and talk with others in a safe, public setting. But it’s been a tough slog.
As reported in the Denver Post, at a hearing in June, Emmett Reistroffer, campaign director for Initiative 300 and a member of the city’s Social Consumption Advisory Committee, said “99 percent” of business people who were interested in applying for a social consumption license are “no longer interested” because the proposed rules are too restrictive.
The Alaska Marijuana Control Board was scheduled to meet on July 11 to discuss three ideas on public consumption.
There are thorny problems yet to be solved, most surrounding not-in-my-backyard issues. But business operators are keenly aware of the demand and are trying to address it.
An activist and event producer in Trinidad, Colorado reports that her business partner filed a lawsuit against the city for enticement of tourists because there are 24 recreational shops in the city and no place to legally consume. Authorities closed down her smoke lounge there and were arresting tourists for public consumption.
The public consumption issue is even trickier in Washington, D.C.
Here, the other side of the double quandary is that not only can you not smoke it in any public space, but you can’t buy recreational cannabis anywhere.
That means that any non-medical patient smoking recreational cannabis in D.C. likely bought it from the underground market that still thrives here. And ending the black market here was supposed to be one of the objectives of recreational legalization.
In D.C., the only place you can smoke legal cannabis is in your own private residence. But if you happen to live in a housing authority apartment or any other federally subsidized building, you can’t. If you get caught smoking in public, it’s $100 fine.
But residents, tourists, visitors – along with the yearly new flock of college students – are increasingly taking their toking to the streets. And local law enforcement has noticed.
The Washington Post recently reported that D.C. police records show more than 400 people arrested in 2016 for public consumption, up from 142 arrests in 2015 when recreational cannabis use was first legalized.
It doesn’t take long to see why there has been an uptick in arrests. I took a tour of D.C. nightlife hotspots over the last few months to see – er, smell – for myself.
- Outside a bar in the Penn Quarter, the lively party zone just a few blocks from the Capitol, I witnessed two guys standing alongside cigarette smokers in their designated section casually sharing a joint and watching crowds of tourists walk by. Some tourists noticed and laughed about it, some cringed, a few pulled their children closer. Most didn’t seem to care.
- Near a main entrance right before an event at Verizon, where the Magic and Capitals play, I smelled the skunky smell of someone partaking.
- On another night, I saw two guys in plain view on a street corner by the Howard Theater near the campus of Howard University, casually chatting and smoking.
- I have seen a group of four people walking down a street in the 14th street district, puffing and passing as they strolled, totally oblivious to the D.C. police driving by nearby – slowly.
- I saw one guy smoking a joint by the Ford Theater and listened as he got stopped by two tourists, asking where they could get some cannabis to smoke. He gave them the remainder of the joint he was smoking and told them that’s the only way to get some if you don’t have a medical card – someone has to give it to you for free.
So in D.C., it’s legal, but it’s not. It’s available, but it’s not. You can smoke it, but you can’t.
“The situation we find ourselves in is preposterous,” Jack Evans, a D.C. Ward 2 council member, said during a town-hall meeting in June, 2016 about recreational cannabis in the nation’s capital.
He echoed the frustration of other D.C. council members who have been fighting to remedy the public consumption situation, but have struck out again and again in council meetings, nearly getting a public consumption ruling passed last year that was quickly shut down.
The big sticking point in developing a plan for public consumption is Congress, where in 2014, Maryland Republican Representative – and medical doctor – Andy Harris added a rider to the omnibus spending bill specifically prohibiting the District from using any locally raised public funds to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol – a key element of cannabis club operations.
Each year since, the bill has come up for renewal and each year, the city council is challenged by local activists to find a way to kill the rider. But it stays.
“Until that rider goes away, we are stuck,” D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said, one of the more ardent advocates for legalization and regulation in the District. She and other council members – along with the director of the Department of Health and the director of alcohol regulation – are part of a private club task force that is now in a sort of limbo as to what to do next, and when.
But the city has a sort of framework for consideration. In a report filed in 2016, the task force agreed that, if private clubs were to be permitted, a list of conditions would have to be met, including limiting membership to DC residents; allowing enthusiasts to join more than one club; making clubs compile a list of their guests 24 hours in advance; and not allowing clubs to sell, serve, or permit the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Meanwhile, there are other methods afoot for meeting the demand for recreational purchases in the District. There are a dozen delivery services where a District resident can order, say, a shirt for $50 that comes with a couple of free grams or a pre-roll.
And there are apps popping up that can help. Check out LeafedIn, for example, for a map showing where dozens of consumers and vendors are located, not only in the District, but across the Potomac in Virginia, a state where getting caught with a joint is a misdemeanor and $500 fine, and selling a half ounce is punishable by up to ten years in jail and a fine of $2,500.
The site currently lists three vendors in northern Virginia, which is largely considered part of the greater D.C. metro area and has its own party spots where the smell of cannabis lingers in the nighttime air on weeknights.
So the demand – and the confusion – in states where recreational cannabis is legal goes on, and the chase about where to publicly consume it gets more interesting.
Developing and promoting public consumption can be big business. And the current thinking is that it’s just a matter of time before legislators and regulators get on board with the concept that is clearly becoming a bigger issue as more states roll out their recreational cannabis plans.
But, as with many things cannabis, all anyone can do is standby, watch, and wait. Or dive in and make it happen.