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D.C. City Council Rejects Proposal To Penalize ‘Gifting’ Shops

A bill that sought to levy harsh fines on businesses in Washington, D.C. that engage in the practice of “gifting” –– whereby a retailer sells a product or good to customer that is accompanied by a “gift” of cannabis –– failed to advance within the district’s city council on Tuesday.

The emergency legislation would have “created fines of $30,000 for shops caught gifting marijuana to customers and allowed D.C. residents over 21 to purchase medical marijuana without seeing a doctor first and simply self-attesting to their medical need,” according to NBC Washington.

Local television station WTOP reported that the “council voted 8-5 in favor of the bill, but because it was emergency legislation, it needed nine votes to advance.”

Phil Mendelson (chairman of the D.C. Council), pushed the bill and called for an urgent vote last week.

Mendelson says that the widespread practice of “gifting” has undermined the district’s medical cannabis establishments, with patients opting to procure weed via illicit means instead of through the regulated channels. Accordingly, the bill would have removed the requirement that patients see doctors before buying medical marijuana.

“The medical side are struggling on the brink of existence, while the illegal side has only grown more rapidly,” Mendelson, a Democrat, said, as quoted by the Washington Post.

The Post said that the bill “had alarmed many of the proprietors and patrons of those [gifting] shops, which faced steep civil fines under the proposed legislation that they said could have put them out of business.”

The bill was opposed by some owners of these establishments who claimed it would have devastating economic consequences for the entire city.

“If the legislation passed today, it would put hundreds if not thousands of people out of work,” said Derek Dawson, a proprietor of one of the gifting shops, as quoted by NBC Washington. “Sixty percent of the people who are involved in the industry are either Black or Hispanic, and so like the people of color have found a way to find social equity in this market,”

As business owners like Dawson see it, the initiative passed by a majority of D.C. voters in 2014 that legalized recreational pot use gave them the right to “gift” weed to customers.

Complicating matters is Congress, which oversees all laws in the nations’ capital. Every congressional spending bill since 2014 has contained a clause that prohibits Washington, D.C., from selling cannabis.

There was hope among cannabis reform advocates that the current Democratic-led Congress would scrap that provision, known as the “Harris Rider,” named for its author Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland.

These hopes were further bolstered when Senate Democrats released a draft of an Appropriations Bill that did not include Harris Rider. This development was praised by Muriel Bowser, Washington, D.C. Mayor.

“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” the mayor’s office said in a statement at the time. “As we continue on the path to D.C. statehood, I want to thank Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, our good friend and Subcommittee Chair, Senator Chris Van Hollen, and, of course, our champion on the Hill, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for recognizing and advancing the will of D.C. voters. We urge Congress to pass a final spending bill that similarly removes all anti-Home Rule riders, allowing D.C. to spend our local funds as we see fit.”

The optimism faded when Democrats issued a new bill for appropriations that contained the rider.