D.C. has paths forward despite congressional interference
Last update: May 8, 2016
In November 2014, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 71, which legalized the limited possession and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana by adults who are 21 or older. It made no provision for non-medical sales and does not apply on federal property, including the national Mall and Interstate 295. For those under 21, it left in place the decriminalization law, which imposes a $25 civil fine.
Councilmembers Grosso, Orange, Evans, and Nadeau have sponsored legislation to create the regulatory framework necessary for a responsible marijuana industry. The “Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act of 2015,” B21-0023, would allow the city to register and regulate marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, retail stores, and testing labs and to impose taxes on the sale of marijuana to adults 21 and older.
Unfortunately, Congress attached a “rider” to an appropriations bill that blocked the council from spending any money to enact a law that would reduce penalties associated with the use, possession, or sale of marijuana. This rider is set to expire on September 30, 2016. MPP is working to ensure that Congress does not include it on next year’s budget.
Even if they do, there are other paths forward. The Local Budget Autonomy Act may allow the District to tax and regulate marijuana using its own local funds. Or, Mayor Bowser could use special savings known as “reserve funds” to tax and regulate marijuana. Although Congress could still block a tax and regulate bill, it would have to do so by passing a joint resolution in both houses that would be subject to presidential veto, which is much more difficult than attaching a rider.
Council imposes permanent social use ban; task force launched to study the issue
Initiative 71 did not specifically address where adults could use marijuana and left in place a criminal penalty for doing so in public places. Immediately after I-71 took effect, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to temporarily expand the definition of a public place in an unreasonably broad manner. As a practical matter, this banned all consumption of cannabis outside the home, including in private clubs or at private events. This has a disproportionate impact on low-income people, who cannot consume cannabis in federally-subsidized housing and many apartment buildings. It also helps perpetuate continuing racial disparities in arrests; new data shows that 85% of the arrests for public consumption were of African Americans even though they make up only 49% of D.C.’s population and consume marijuana at rates similar to whites.
While the council recently passed a permanent version of this social use ban, the vote this time was 7-6. In addition, three of those seven councilmembers are up for re-election. Click here for our voter guide and don’t forget to vote in the primary election on June 14. In order to vote in a party’s primary, you must be registered to vote as a member of that party by May 16. If you aren’t sure if you are registered or need to update your information, click here.
Despite the disappointing vote, the council did take a tentative step forward earlier this year when it created a task force to study alternatives to the ban. MPP is actively engaged with this task force, which will hopefully recommend that D.C.’s cannabis consumers have a safe and lawful place to consume marijuana socially once the Congressional rider is lifted.
Medical marijuana program taking root
The District’s medical marijuana program has gone through quite a bit of compassionate change over the last two years. For example, the law was amended to allow physicians to recommend medical marijuana for any condition they think will benefit from its use, giving hundreds of additional patients from around the city legal and safe access to medical marijuana. Currently, the council is considering a bill that would provide reciprocity to out-of-state patients, B21-0210, and another that would require testing of medical marijuana, B21-0192, so patients know what they are getting.
If you have a debilitating condition and would like to know more about medical marijuana in the District, talk to your doctor and visit the District Department of Health’s medical marijuana program website.
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