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D.C. Committee Votes To Eliminate Medical Marijuana Licenses Caps And Promote Industry Equity As Part Of Wide-Ranging Reform Bill



Washington, D.C. lawmakers on Friday approved a bill that would significantly reshape the District’s medical marijuana program in several key ways—including by eliminating licensing caps for medical marijuana businesses, promoting social equity in the industry and creating new regulated business categories such as on-site consumption facilities and cannabis cooking classes.

The legislation that’s being carried by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on behalf of Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) also contains provisions to empower officials to crack down on “gifting” operators that sell non-cannabis items in exchange for “free” marijuana products. The aim is to encourage those businesses to become part of the legal and regulated market by taking advantage of the new licensing opportunities.

The bill would additionally permanently codify a current temporary law allowing adults to self-certify as cannabis patients.

The Medical Cannabis Amendment Act cleared the Judiciary & Public Safety Committee unanimously with amendments on Friday. Its next stop will be the Business and Economic Development Committee, before potentially going before the full Council.

While the measure as introduced would have expanded the number of dispensaries by a certain number and removed other licensing restrictions, the committee revision instead eliminates the caps altogether, leaving it up to the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) to make that decision. Regulators would be required to submit an analysis to justify additional business license approvals.

Additionally, the legislation codifies that people 21 and older can self-certify as medical cannabis patients who can buy marijuana from dispensaries without receiving a doctor’s recommendation. A report for the bill says this is necessary because of the “prohibitive” costs associated with obtaining the recommendation and because finding a doctor to issue the document “can be difficult.”

“These barriers and obstacles help explain why the medical cannabis program in the District remains underutilized,” it says. And to that point, medical marijuana patient registrations have increased substantially since the mayor signed temporary, emergency self-certification legislation over the summer.

Lawmakers also said in the report that they believe the bill “does not run afoul” of a congressional rider that’s blocked D.C. from using local tax dollars to implement a system of regulated recreational cannabis sales, which has been in effect for years despite voters having approved a possession and cultivation legalization initiative in 2014.

“The plain language of the bill does not legalize recreational possession, distribution, or use of cannabis,” it says. “Rather it allows qualifying medical patients to self-certify that they meet the criteria under the law.”

Meanwhile, the measure gives city officials authority to take enforcement action against anyone who “knowingly engages or attempts to engage in the purchase, sale, exchange, or any other form of commercial transaction involving cannabis that is not purchased, sold, or exchanged” under the gifting provision of the District’s marijuana law.

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It says that, 180 days after approval of the bill, the mayor can issue a $10,000 fine, revoke license and close shops that violate the law. There would be a “remediation” option available to businesses that face penalties under the provision and take steps to correct course.

Similar language faced significant opposition from advocates as part of earlier legislation that the Council ultimately rejected this year. But because the new committee-approved bill also greatly expands licensing opportunities and creates a streamlined pathway for licensure for currently non-compliant businesses, it’s not clear if it will ultimately face the same level of resistance through this new vehicle.

Advocates, however, said that they are not ready to support the revised legislation, at least not yet.

“We appreciate the inclusion of issues like social equity, grants, and minority owned businesses in the current draft—policy areas that we have long advocate for,” activists with the i-71 Committee, which recently commissioned a poll that shows majority support for the District’s gifting market, said on Friday.

“However, there are many additions that still require more thought and discussion…in order to set up our cannabis industry for success,” it said. “We feel this bill, as written, raises many policy questions and will create more problems than it will bring solutions.”

For manufacturers and any new dispensary or cultivation licenses, regulators must ensure that at least 50 percent go to “social equity applicants and medical cannabis certified business enterprises,” the bill text says.

It also says that social equity and medical cannabis certified business enterprises will have their applications scored with more points for any license types that aren’t explicitly set aside for those groups.

Regulators must also “waive 75 percent of any nonrefundable license application fees, nonrefundable fees associated with receiving a license to operate, and surety bonds or other financial requirements, for social equity applicants and medical cannabis certified business enterprises.”

Removing marijuana business licensing caps could also help the District keep up with demand now that the mayor has signed separate legislation that allows non-residents to self-certify as cannabis patients with 30-day temporary registrations.

“Rather than make technical and minor changes to the bill as introduced, the Committee Print takes a more holistic approach by making it easier for patients to access medical cannabis, removing unnecessary caps and restrictions on the number of licenses, and prioritizing equity for new licenses, among many other amendments to the statute,” the committee report says.

“In the Committee’s view, these changes are necessary to provide relief to patients, current business owners, and people from marginalized communities who have been previously excluded from the medical cannabis market,” it continues.

Here are the main provisions of the Judiciary Committee-approved Medical Cannabis Amendment Act: 

Marijuana business license caps would be eliminated.

ABRA would have the authority to approve new licensees for various categories and be required to submit an analysis that “demonstrates the need for additional licenses due to estimated or actual increased demand exceeding the capacity of existing licensees.”

Social equity applicants and existing medical cannabis businesses would be prioritized in the licensing process.

The emergency legislation allowing adults 21 and older to self-certify as medical cannabis patients would be permanently codified.

The mayor would be empowered to take enforcement actions, including fines and licensing revocations, for businesses that sell marijuana under a “gifting” statute without proper registration.

The bill would allow for new types of sanctioned marijuana business activities, letting licensees provide for on-site consumption, delivery services and cannabis cooking classes, for example.

In determining a person’s social equity applicant eligibility, regulators could not inquire into a person’s “criminal conviction that has been sealed, expunged, vacated, or pardoned.”

All references to “marijuana” under the law would be changed to “cannabis.”

“There will certainly be more opportunities as we move to the other committees to continue to add to or change or enhance any part of this,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Allen said at the closing of the hearing. “I feel very confident that the version we’re passing today—while a good start, there will be other changes that are made.”

While advocates have welcomed legislative efforts to expand cannabis access in the District, many continue to emphasize the need to end the congressional blockade that’s prevented D.C. from establishing a regulated market.

After President Joe Biden issued a proclamation earlier this month pardoning Americans who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses, as well as people who’ve violated the law in D.C., U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) called on the president to go further by federally legalizing cannabis and letting the District establish a commercial cannabis market and grant clemency on its own.

The congresswoman said the ongoing local ban, which was maintained in Biden’s last two budget proposals, represents a “shocking violation of D.C. home rule by a Democratic administration.”

D.C. lawmakers also recently sent letters to House and Senate Appropriations Committees leadership, imploring them to remove the rider preventing local cannabis sales as part of Fiscal Year 2023 spending legislation.

The House passed the relevant spending bill for FY 2023 in July, excluding the D.C. marijuana prohibition language. In the Senate, the legislation that’s currently on the table from the Democratic Appropriations Committee chairman also omits the rider.

Bowser, Norton and other elected officials in the city have routinely criticized Congress for singling out the District and depriving it of the ability to do what a growing number of states have done without federal interference.

Norton told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview in July that she’s “fairly optimistic” that the rider will not be included in the final spending package. She added that the D.C. self-certification policy is an “effective workaround” until then.

The patient self-certification law represents a significant expansion of another piece of legislation enacted into law this year that allows people 65 and older to self-certify for medical cannabis without a doctor’s recommendation.

Meanwhile, the mayor signed a bill in July that bans most workplaces from firing or otherwise punishing employees for marijuana use.

The reform is designed to build upon on a previous measure lawmakers approved to protect local government employees against workplace discrimination due to their use of medical cannabis.

While not directly related to the policy change, a D.C. administrative court recently reversed the termination of a government employee and medical cannabis patient who was fired after being suspected of intoxication on the job and subsequently tested positive for marijuana in late 2020. It also ordered the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) to reimburse the worker for all back pay and benefits.

Read the newly revised text of the D.C. medical cannabis reform bill below:

Biden Health Secretary Has Already Talked To FDA About Marijuana Scheduling Review, Which Will Move ‘Quickly’

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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