D.C. Gears Up for Adult-Use Cannabis Sales

Washington, D.C., is best known as a Congressional battleground, the stage for legislative developments that impact the country.

But beyond the new iron fences around the Capitol, the District itself is a vibrant city full of culture and ethnic history. And thanks to centuries-old laws that give Congress broad oversight over the capital, it’s home to the most unique cannabis industry structure in the nation: Despite it being legal to possess and even grow at home, it’s been against the law to sell cannabis in D.C. since legalization took effect six years ago.

Yet industry activists and stakeholders believe change is imminent, now that the White House has a new occupant and the Senate is controlled by Democrats. The D.C. government appears to agree: According to officials, preparation is already underway for local licensing and regulation of adult-use cannabis sales. 

Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis spoke to experts in the D.C. cannabis scene about how the new industry should be regulated and the most probable path to establishing adult-use sales in the District.

What’s the current status of cannabis in D.C.?

D.C. legalized cannabis with its Initiative 71, which passed in 2014 and went into effect in February 2015. The new law allowed adult residents to possess up to two ounces of cannabis, grow up to six plants at home and consume on private property. Residents are also allowed to “gift” someone up to an ounce, but sales of any amount are prohibited thanks to the infamous “Harris Rider,” a provision blocking D.C. cannabis sales which for years was added onto the federal budget by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD). 

The prohibition on sales has created an industry of discrete “pop-up” marketplaces, often staged at a private residence or other location revealed only to attendees. Though these underground “dispensaries” are often heavily-guarded, they are also frequent targets of police raids and violent crime, particularly robbery, since perpetrators know vendors are in a legal grey area and unlikely to call the police or report the incident.

Recent movement on D.C. cannabis sales

Early in 2021, the government moved to rectify the situation through local legislation. Two separate bills have been introduced: Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2021, and Councilmember Phil Mendelson’s Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act of 2021

The bills are similar but contain some important differences. Mayor Bowser’s bill sets specific caps on the amount of revenue to be put towards community grants and business startup assistance, while Councilman Mendelson’s bill devotes 50% of cannabis revenue into a Community Reinvestment Fund and 30% into a Social Fund to provide loans and assistance to social equity license applicants. The Mayor’s bill also limits license types to just five kinds, although both bills create microbusiness license categories. Bowser’s bill also has a higher tax rate at 17%, compared to 13% in Mendelson’s proposal.

Comparing bills and predicting the future

Activists seem to have a clear preference for Councilmember Mendelson’s plan.

“The mayor’s bill doesn’t even deserve to be taken seriously,” said Adam Eidinger, founder of advocacy group DC Marijuana

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