More than 50 leading marijuana advocacy and civil rights organizations sent a letter to congressional leaders and appropriators on March 4, asking that they finally allow recreational cannabis sales to begin in Washington, DC—eight years after voters approved a local legalization ballot measure.
Specifically, the groups—led by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)—say they want to “maintain” the removal of the DC language in a spending bill approved by the House last year and circulated in draft form in the Senate. The District is currently prohibited from using its local tax dollars to implement a system of regulated marijuana sales due to the appropriations rider that’s been annually approved since 2014.
“It is imperative to public health, public safety, and for Congress’ support of the District’s right to home rule.”
“It is imperative to both public health, public safety, and for Congress’ support of the District’s right to home rule that the removal of the Harris rider is maintained,” the letter says, referring to the anti-legalization sponsor of the rider, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD).
“Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the grey market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model,” the groups wrote. “Such a model would free up law enforcement resources to focus on threats to public safety. It would also allow legitimate entrepreneurs to start businesses, create jobs and spur economic development in the District.”
“It is of utmost importance that the District of Columbia be granted the same capacity as states around the nation that have voted to regulate adult use of marijuana and deliver on the promises of Initiative 71,” the letter continues.
Signatories of the letter include groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, AFL-CIO’s Washington Metropolitan Council, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Association of Social Workers, Competitive Enterprise Institute, NORML, BOWL PAC, Dr. Bronner’s, DC Vote, DC Marijuana Justice, R Street Institute and Weedmaps.
“It is time for Congress to support the District of Columbia’s right to self-determination and lift the rider prohibiting them from regulating marijuana,” the letter concludes.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) thanked the groups for advocating for DC’s right to enact cannabis commerce. She said in November that she is “closer than ever” to removing the blockade on cannabis commerce in her district.
While there appears to be shared interest among House and Senate Democrats in ending the DC ban as part of the fiscal year 2022 appropriations session, achieving that goal may be logistically complicated.
The leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee have reportedly reached an agreement on framework spending legislation, after repeatedly extending government funding past last October’s original deadline through a series of short-term continuing resolutions. The latest deadline is March 11.
“Congress continues to make strides in advancing federal marijuana reform grounded in racial justice, while simultaneously prohibiting the very jurisdiction that led the country in legalizing marijuana through this lens from being able to regulate it.”
All four committee leaders handling appropriations reportedly agreed to continue negotiations about adding or removing existing riders in the future, raising doubts about the prospects of eliminating the DC language this round due to opposition from top Republicans.
Unhelpfully, from advocates’ perspective, President Joe Biden’s own budget proposal sought to continue the GOP-led ban.
“In one hand, Congress continues to make strides in advancing federal marijuana reform grounded in racial justice, while simultaneously being responsible for prohibiting the very jurisdiction that led the country in legalizing marijuana through this lens from being able to regulate it,” Queen Adesuyi, senior national policy manager for DPA, said in a press release. “This conflict and contradiction must end now.”
“Leadership passing on this historic chance to be on the right side of history—in standing for both marijuana reform and democracy—would be demoralizing, and a clear sign that there is a stronger commitment to use DC as a bargaining chip than on the values of marijuana justice and home rule,” she said. “We look forward to working with them to finally bring this injustice to a close and ensure DC residents’ voice and vote are respected.”
Several of the groups behind the letter separately urged House leadership to put a bill to federally legalize marijuana—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—on the floor this month.
Meanwhile, back in DC, lawmakers continue to gear up to enact legislation that would allow for marijuana sales, while also advancing other cannabis-related measures.
Lawmakers held a joint hearing in November on a pair of bills to authorize the legal sale of recreational marijuana and significantly expand the existing medical cannabis program in the nation’s capital.
A provision of the bill that could have led to a broad crackdown on the city’s unregulated market for recreational cannabis was removed, much to the relief of advocates, who criticized a component that would have punished businesses that “gift” marijuana in a manner that effectively circumvents the local prohibition on retail cannabis sales.
Marijuana possession and gifting is legal under a voter-approved 2014 initiative—but there currently isn’t a regulated market and people aren’t allowed to accept any form of renumeration for gifting.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said last April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.
Bowser introduced a cannabis commerce bill last February, though her measure was not on the agenda for November’s hearing alongside the cannabis legalization proposal put forward by Mendelson.
Local marijuana activists also proposed an amendment to Mendelson’s legalization bill that would allow small entrepreneurs to sell cannabis at farmers markets. It’s not clear when DC lawmakers will convene again to vote on proposed changes and the overall legislation.
Last March, a federal oversight agency determined that the congressional rider blocking marijuana sales in DC does not preclude local officials from taking procedural steps to prepare for the eventual reform, such as holding hearings, even if they cannot yet enact it with the blockade pending.
Last week, a DC Council committee unanimously approved a bill to ban most workplaces from subjecting job applicants to pre-employment marijuana testing. It would expand on previous legislation the DC Council approved to protect local government employees against workplace discrimination due to their use of medical cannabis.
Bowser also recently signed a bill into law that will expand access to the District’s medical marijuana program in a series of ways.
Now, senior citizens will be able to self-certify their own eligibility for cannabis without having to get a recommendation from a doctor. The law also further extends the registration renewal deadline for patients and creates a week-long medical marijuana tax relief “holiday” that coincides with the unofficial cannabis event known as 4/20.
That bill also generally expands on prior emergency legislation that the Council approved at the height of the coronavirus pandemic to extend registration eligibility for the medical cannabis program. Patients under 65 with registrations will continue to be validated through at least September 30.
In 2019, another DC lawmaker proposed a separate medical cannabis reform bill meant to ease the registration process for patients. Instead of having to wait several weeks for regulators to process their medical cannabis approvals, patients would simply fill out an application with the city health department and would then automatically qualify to legally purchase marijuana on a provisional basis.
The legislation’s author, at-large Councilmember David Grosso (I), introduced a similar bill in 2017, though that version allowed residents to self-certify as medical marijuana patients—without the need to involve a doctor—by signing an affidavit, and it didn’t have the stipulation that their qualifications could be later rejected.
Separately, another group of activists announced an effort to pressure local lawmakers to enact broad drug decriminalization, with a focus on promoting harm reduction programs, in the nation’s capital. A poll released last year found that voters are strongly in favor of the proposals.
Photograph by Ed Uthman via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from DPA to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.