Local lawmakers in Washington, D.C. last week passed legislation to expand medical marijuana sales, giving the city’s popular but unlicensed weed gifting shops a path to the regulated market. The bill, which was approved by the D.C. district council on December 20, comes after Congress included an existing prohibition on regulated adult-use cannabis sales in the nation’s capital as part of a spending bill approved last week.
The bill significantly expands Washington, D.C.’s medical marijuana program, lifting a cap on dispensaries and increasing the number of authorized cultivation facilities. The legislation also creates licenses for new types of cannabis businesses, including marijuana delivery services, online sales, educational programs such as cooking classes, and cannabis consumption areas at dispensaries. Half of the new licenses will be reserved for social equity applicants, which are defined as D.C. residents who have a low income, have spent time in prison, or are related to someone who was incarcerated for a cannabis or drug-related offense.
Bill Addresses D.C.’s Weed Gifting Shops
The legislation is designed to address the vast unregulated market for cannabis in Washington, D.C., where medical marijuana was legalized by local lawmakers in 2010. In 2014, voters approved Initiative 71, a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. Under the measure, adults can possess up to two ounces of marijuana, are permitted to grow cannabis at home, and may gift up to one ounce of weed to another adult. However, Congress, which has control over the Washington, D.C. budget, has refused to allow the city to spend money on regulating recreational marijuana sales.
The situation has led to dozens of businesses that take advantage of the gifting provision of I-71 to distribute cannabis openly from storefront businesses. Under the common scheme, businesses sell benign merchandise such as apparel or art, offering what is ostensibly a free gift of marijuana with the purchase. Phil Mendelson, the Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, estimates the unregulated marijuana market in the nation’s capital is worth as much as $600 million per year.
“There’s always going to be an advantage to unlicensed and unregulated: they don’t have to pay taxes, they don’t have to ensure quality,” Mendelson said in an interview with DCist/WAMU. “Congress is aiding and abetting that by prohibiting us from regulating that. It’s a real public safety problem,” he said.
Patients Can Self-Certify To Use Medical Marijuana
The legislation passed last week also makes permanent an emergency measure passed earlier this year that allows adults to certify their own eligibility to use medical marijuana, eliminating a previous provision that required certification by a licensed physician. At the time, Mendelson and some members also attempted to enact prohibitions on the gifting industry but faced opposition from a group of business owners. Legalizing the shops so they could be regulated was not possible under the congressional ban, making allowing gifting businesses a path to the medical marijuana market an option popular with a majority of the district council.
“It’s going to allow the District to be a lot healthier on the cannabis side,” Terrence White, chairman of a group known as the i-71 Committee and a gifting shop owner, told the Washington Post. “It’s going to allow us to be doing it ‘right,’ as I call it.”
The bill passed by the council last week gives existing operators 90 days to apply for a medical marijuana retailer license and prevents enforcement against gifting shops for at least 315 days after the legislation goes into effect. David Grosso, a former council member and current lobbyist for the D.C. Cannabis Trade Association, a group representing licensed medical marijuana operators, said that the bill is a positive development for the industry.
“We certainly would like to see a level playing field across the board, and that hasn’t been the case for as long as the [Initiative 71] folks have been operating illegally. And so we’re hopeful that this effort will bring them into the legal market and then treat them equally with us,” said Grosso. “And that means all the regulations that come with it, the fees that you have to pay, the inspections you have to endure, all of the restrictions around where you can locate, and everything like that which the current legal market has had to deal with now for more than ten years, which is a huge burden on us.”
Norbert Pickett, the owner of Cannabliss, one of the seven licensed medical dispensaries located in the nation’s capital, agreed, saying that the legislation is an opportunity to expand Washington, D.C.’s medical marijuana market and provide new options for patients.
“It gives patients more access to safe and tested cannabis,” he said. “It unifies unregulated market and the legal market. For me, that’s a win.”
Mackenzie Mann, project manager for the gifting industry trade group Generational Equity Movement, said that the legislation from the district council is a drastic change for Washington, D.C.’s cannabis landscape.
“It’s surreal,” Mann said. “A year ago, they were trying to shut us down.”