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Washington, D.C. Passes Bill To Expand Medical Weed Sales

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. It also allows for the creation of licenses to allow new cannabis business types, including online sales, marijuana delivery, as well as educational programs like cooking classes and dispensary cannabis consumption areas. Social equity applicants will receive half of all new licenses. These are D.C. residents with low incomes who were incarcerated or who are related to those who were.

Bill Addresses D.C.’s Weed Gifting Shops

It is intended to deal with the large unregulated marijuana market in Washington, D.C., in which medical cannabis was legalized in 2010 by local politicians. Initiative 71 was approved by voters in 2014. This ballot measure legalized recreational marijuana. Adults can have up to 2 ounces of cannabis, may grow their own marijuana at home and may give up to 1 ounce to others. Congress, however, is in control of Washington, D.C.’s budget and has denied the city permission to use money to regulate recreational marijuana sales.

Numerous businesses now take advantage I-71’s gifting provision to sell cannabis from retail locations. The common arrangement allows businesses to sell harmless merchandise like art or apparel and offer what appears to be a gift of marijuana along with their 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

Last week’s legislation also made permanent an earlier emergency measure that allowed adults to verify their eligibility for medical marijuana. This replaces a prior provision which required certified physicians to sign off on the application. Mendelson and other members tried at that time to ban gifting, but met opposition from some business owners. A majority of the district council supported legalizing gift shops to allow them to be regulated.

“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.”

Council passed the bill last week, giving existing cannabis retailers 90 days to apply online for a license. The legislation also prohibits the enforcement of gift shops within 315 calendar days. David Grosso is an ex-member of the council and a lobbyist for D.C. Cannabis Trade Association. This association represents licensed medical marijuana producers. Grosso said the bill was a good development.

“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]People have been illegally operating. 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.”