Washington DC Mayor Moves to Allow Cannabis Sales

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The passage of a new bill that would legalize cannabis sales to adults in Washington, DC, will hinge on federal legislation that is largely out of the District’s control.

DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a Democrat, unveiled a bill Thursday that would legalize the sale of adult-use cannabis and bring much-needed clarity to DC’s pseudo-legal cannabis marketplace. Yet in order for it to become law, Congress will need to undo an existing appropriations bill amendment, implemented by House Republicans in 2014, that prevents DC from taxing or regulating cannabis.

The situation has led to an explosion of gray market services and popup events that take advantage of rules that allow DC adults to gift small amounts of cannabis to one another. In most cases, consumers pay for non-cannabis items, such as t-shirts, and are then “gifted” cannabis as part of the transaction.

“It’s a ridiculous situation. Citizens may possess small quantities of cannabis, but it’s illegal to buy it,” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Thanks, Congress.”

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Bowser says the DC bill will aim to crack down on the District’s thriving “gifting” economy.

“We want DC residents to be able to have the choice to buy legally, and we also want to drive out the illegal market,” she told The Washington Post.

While Bowser and US Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s sole congressional representative, are confident that House Democrats will be able to overturn the provision when it lapses at the end of this year, the fate of the District’s cannabis bill is far from certain.

The current congressional appropriations bill, which contains the Republicans’ preventative amendment, expires in October. In the meantime, Bowser’s legalization bill exists largely in a state of limbo: Until the amendment is overturned, it may technically be illegal for the local government to even hold hearings on cannabis. Yet Bowser has conferred with the District’s Attorney General and told The Post that she believes she is in the clear to hold hearings so long as the city doesn’t actually vote on the bill until the amendment is gone. “That won’t stop our introduction,” she said, “and it certainly won’t stop the Council’s discussion and action.”

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Confusion around cannabis is nothing new in the nation’s capital. In 2014, DC voters passed Initiative 71, which legalized the possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and permitted home cultivation of up to six plants. Despite Republicans’ threats to have the mayor arrested, the bill took effect in 2015.

Bowser’s newly unveiled bill would put a 17% sales tax on cannabis, permit home delivery services, and automatically seal any cannabis-related misdemeanor charges for DC residents. The bill would put oversight of the industry in the hands of Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, which would be renamed. As for cannabis production, only the District’s eight current medical operators would initially be able to grow adult-use cannabis. Other licenses wouldn’t be granted for at least six months after the bill’s passage.

“We want to be able to regulate, we want to be able to make sure we are collecting our fair share in taxes, we want to invest those taxes in ways that affect communities that have been disproportionately affected, and we want to train and hire DC residents,” Bowser said.