Feds Will Allow DC Take Its First Steps Toward Legalizing Adult-Use Dispensaries
Washington DC just won a small victory in its battle to legalize adult-use cannabis retail sales, but it remains to be seen whether the nation's capital will be able to finally realize their dream.
Published on March 9, 2021

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Federal officials just announced that it is legal for Washington DC officials to draft cannabis retail legislation, even though a Congressional amendment prevents the city from actually legalizing weed sales. 

In 2014, the nation's capital legalized the personal possession, cultivation, and use of cannabis by way of a voter-approved ballot measure, but the city still prohibits sales of all non-medical pot. This unusual law created a thriving cannabis “grey market,” where entrepreneurs offer “free” weed in exchange for merch or donations

City officials soon realized their mistake and moved to legalize retail pot sales, but Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) blocked their ability to do so by adding riders to every annual federal budget bill. But now that Democrats control Congress, it is unlikely that the rider will be approved again. Just last week, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) proposed a new retail legalization bill that would capitalize on this opportunity.

Rep. Harris, in his self-appointed position as watchdog of DC's weed laws, whined to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that city officials violated the current rider by drafting an adult-use sales bill. Much to the lawmaker's chagrin, the feds responded that although the rider blocks DC from spending its own money to regulate adult-use sales, it does not prevent city officials from considering legislation that would do so in the future.

In a new memo released this Monday, GAO General Counsel Thomas H. Armstrong wrote that “DC government officials did not violate” the budget rider when they spent city funding to “draft, introduce, and refer a bill to various Committees because the officials did not obligate or expend amounts to enact the bill into law,” Marijuana Moment reports

The GAO memo will allow DC officials to continue debating cannabis retail legislation, but the city cannot actually make this bill law unless Congress passes a new annual budget bill that does not include the rider. Advocates are confident that this will happen as soon as this October, though, and District lawmakers are planning to have a bill finalized by the time that happens.

DC legislators are actually debating two different proposals, one from Bowser and one from city Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). Both of these bills would legalize adult-use retail sales, and both include provisions to bolster social equity in the new retail industry. The Mayor's bill has been criticized over a provision that would limit personal possession of weed to 10 ounces, though. The city’s 2014 law allows home-grows, but this limitation would effectively prevent people from keeping the weed that they grow.

In light of this limitation, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is recommending Mendelson's proposal over Bowser's. Regardless of which version succeeds, DPA policy manager Queen Adesuyi said that “it is critical that this injustice in [Congress'] own backyard finally comes to an end and home rule is respected,” Marijuana Moment reports. “It is past time for DC to be able to fully realize these benefits by seeking justice reform and equity within their own legal marketplace.”

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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