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Washington, DC Emergency Bill Aids Medical Cannabis Patients and Dispensaries

City leaders in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday extended a lifeline to the district’s beleaguered medical cannabis dispensaries. 

The D.C. Council gave unanimous approval to an emergency bill that will allow medical cannabis patients “whose cards expired since Mar. 2020 to continue using them to purchase medical marijuana through the end of Jan. 2022,” the website DCist reported, while additionally creating “a new two-year medical marijuana card (instead of the current one-year card), and increases the amount of marijuana a patient can buy at a time to eight ounces, up from four.”

The emergency measure, the website noted, is designed to help dispensaries that “have seen a steep drop-off in business this year because many patients who saw their medical marijuana cards expire during the pandemic have not renewed them yet.”

Phil Mendelson (chairman of the D.C. Council), introduced the bill. He stated that he felt motivated to take action after a district declared a public emergency in August. 

That resulted in “roughly 6,216 patient registrations for the District’s medical cannabis program [expiring] in a very short time period, reducing the number of registered patients in the program from nearly 12,000 to approximately 5,500,” Mendelson said in a memorandum to the council late last month. 

DCist reported that there was “minimal” debate over Mendelson’s bill on Tuesday, although the leadup to the vote on the measure was at time contentious.

One of the key sticking points, according to the website, centered around provisions in Mendelson’s original bill that “would have ramped up civil enforcement against marijuana ‘gifting’ stores and delivery services, which have grown in number in recent years and have been accused of stealing business from the regulated medical marijuana program.”

Such stores have skirted bans on selling marijuana commercially by selling products like t-shirts for unusually high prices and then offering “gifts” of marijuana to customers in the transaction.

Mendelson ultimately dropped that provision after “an outcry from operators of the stores and their advocates,” according to the DCist.

“Since the usual illegal businesses don’t follow the same rules as other licensees, they are driving cultivators, producers, and retailers out of business. After all, how can you compete with someone who is not playing by the same rules you are bound to, such as ensuring quality, paying sales taxes, and following other regulatory requirements?” Mendelson said, as quoted by the website.

Mendelson’s concerns about illicit cannabis sales in Washington, D.C. underscores a dilemma surrounding pot sales in the district that has persisted years after voters there approved a measure legalizing recreational marijuana.

District voters legalized marijuana in 2014. But, sales of pot continue to be illegal because of the oversight by Congress. 

Since the legalization vote seven year ago, every appropriations bill has been passed by Congress. It includes a budget rider that was originally written by Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland. This prohibits the district’s commercialization of weed.

But there have been recent signs that the so-called “Harris rider” may not be long for this world.

Not surprisingly, the appropriations bill that was introduced by Democrats last month in the U.S. Senate did not contain the rider, which was praised by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel bowser. 

“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” Bowser’s office said in a statement 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.”