Congressional Fix Denies DC Voters Their Wish for Legal Cannabis Sales

December 19, 2019

This might not be the biggest news to come out of Washington, DC this week, but it has major significance for cannabis users in the city. On December 17, the House of Representatives approved a $1.4 trillion spending package—and reinstated a provision barring the District of Columbia from using tax dollars to regulate legal cannabis sales.

House Democrats initially removed this provision when they introduced the spending bills in June. But in negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate, they put it back in. The Senate must now approve the two spending bills and send them to President Trump by Friday to avoid a government shutdown and keep federal departments and agencies funded through Fiscal Year 2020. 

DC voters passed Initiative 71 in November 2014, legalizing recreational cannabis. But in December 2014, a last-minute, one-sentence amendment introduced by Representative Andy Harris (R MD-1) barred DC’s City Council from legalizing the sale of Schedule I substances, including marijuana.

The provision, included in all Congressional spending legislation since then, is known as the “Andy Harris rider.” DC cannabis activists find it so objectionable that in 2018 they relocated 100 miles away to Maryland’s First District in order to volunteer for an insurgent Democrat who ran unsuccessfully to unseat Harris.

The city of DC gained some autonomy to elect its own representatives and make laws in 1973, under the Home Rule Act. But Congress retains authority over DC’s legislation and budgets.

“I don’t understand why Congress continues ignoring the voters of DC, and denying us what we voted for,” Lisa Scott, co-founder of the DC Cannabis Business Association, told Filter. “Just because we’re not a state doesn’t mean we don’t deserve the same respect state citizens do get. There’s no real reason they need to do this.”

DC residents can legally possess up to two ounces of cannabis and grow no more than three mature plants in their homes. They can also gift cannabis to peers, as long as money is not exchanged. This situation has created a cannabis gifting economy, where vendors may sell T-shirts, stickers or other products at inflated prices along with a “gift” of cannabis.

“There’s a lot of sales going in in this ‘grey market’ anyway, and this doesn’t stop that activity,” Scott said. “But the city is missing out on the opportunity to collect taxes on all those sales. That is revenue that should be paid towards services we really need.”

Congress interference in DC’s cannabis laws has contributed to continuing disproportionate criminalization of its Black residents, as possession of larger quantities, public consumption and sales remain illegal. Of 926 people arrested for marijuana offenses in 2017⁠—an increase of 37 percent from the prior year⁠—91 percent were Black. Marijuana arrests actually increased by 186 percent in the two years after legalization, and were concentrated in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods.

Scott noted that a large proportion of these arrests were for public consumption of marijuana. And she applauded DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Metropolitan Police for decriminalizing public consumption in September 2018⁠: It is now subject to a citation and $25 fine, rather than arrest.  

Local activists like Scott are drafting the next steps for DC cannabis regardless of the feds’ position. “We are promoting small and micro-businesses [for] when our lawmakers eventually write regulations for legal sales,” she said. “We also want the city to not hold past marijuana arrests against individuals if they apply for a business license. We’re drafting legislation we call ‘the People’s Bill’ and seeking support from our City Council.”

The federal spending package is expected to be approved by the Senate and Trump. In the meantime, DC residents will be forced to continue pressuring federal lawmakers to grant them the autonomy to determine their own cannabis policies.

Image of protest by local cannabis activist group DCMJ, via Facebook.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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