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D.C. Lawmakers Hold Joint Hearing On Marijuana Legalization Bill In Anticipation Of End To Federal Ban



Washington, D.C. lawmakers on Friday held a joint hearing on a pair of bills to authorize the legal sale of recreational marijuana and significantly expand the existing medical cannabis program in the nation’s capital.

The District Council’s Committee of the Whole, along with the Judiciary and Public Safety and Business and Economic Development Committees, took testimony from about 100 people on the legislation over the course of several hours.

They heard numerous recommendations on the legalization proposal, ranging from enhancing social equity provisions to ensuring that medical cannabis patients continue to have access to their medicine to establishing regulations for hemp and CBD products.

While D.C. voters legalized the possession, home cultivation and gifting of adult-use cannabis in 2014, a congressional rider has blocked the District from using its tax dollars to implement a regulated system of sales. Advocates are hopeful that the Democratic-controlled Congress will soon remove that barrier, however, and local legislators are now taking steps to advance reform legislation as soon as they get the green light from Capitol Hill.

The bill, sponsored by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), would “require a regulatory scheme to license the cultivation, production, and retail sale of cannabis in the District.”

It would also “require that 50 percent of tax revenues from the sale of cannabis be deposited into a Community Reinvestment Program Fund and require automatic expungement of D.C. Code cannabis-related arrests and convictions, and provide an opportunities for re-sentencing of cannabis-related convictions,” according to a summary.

At the hearing, Mendelson said the bill “seeks to create a comprehensive regulatory framework for the cultivation, production and sale of recreational cannabis while centering reinvestment and opportunities for people in the communities hit hardest by the drug war.”

The House passed Fiscal Year 2022 spending legislation that would remove the block on D.C. in July. The Senate has not yet advanced its version of the bill through the Appropriations Committee or on the floor, though panel leaders released a draft measure last month that would similarly let D.C. legalize marijuana commerce.

Democratic congressional leaders are moving to delete the rider despite the fact that President Joe Biden’s budget proposal sought to continue the Republican-led ban.

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Ahead of Friday’s hearing, Mendelson and Councilwoman At-Large Christina Henderson (D) sent a letter to Senate leadership, reiterating that they do not want to see appropriations legislation continue to restrict the ability of D.C. to legalize cannabis commerce.

“Currently, the District is in the unsustainable situation of permitting recreational possession and use of small quantities of marijuana while being unable to regulate its sale or distribution,” they wrote. “As a result, a black market has evolved and is becoming substantial… It is time for us to move forward with establishing a safe and equitable recreational marijuana market here in the District.”

At Friday’s hearing, Mendelson said that while “we must wait for the congressional rider to be lifted before this act can be implemented, it’s my hope that with a Democratic majority in the Senate, the time will come soon.”

Councilman Charles Allen, who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said that the city is entering a “weighty moment, filled with a lot of expectation.”

“As someone who looks at this issue through the lens of autonomy, public health and restorative justice, today is a really big deal for the Council,” he said. “And it’s also rare that we hopefully have an opportunity to create an entirely new regulatory structure and, to be frank, grapple with the District’s and this Council’s past complicity in the war on drugs.”

Aurelie Mathieu with the D.C. Attorney General’s office testified that the current rider blocking local marijuana sales deprives “the District of an important funding stream and from creating a cannabis market that is inclusive and remedial to communities that have been hurt the most by the war on drugs.”

“Together we can build on this important work so that when the District finally is able to set up a legalized market for cannabis, the District will be positioned to enact effective legislation that protects public safety and addresses racial inequities,” she said.

The attorney general’s office also advised the Council to add a deadline for the courts to automate expungements for prior marijuana conviction.

Fred Moosally, director of the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), said that the “current lack of a regulatory system for adult cannabis sales in the District has proven to be both unworkable and detrimental to the public health and safety of District residents and visitors.”

But while ABRA supports the legislation, Moosally laid out a number of recommended changes.

The agency said it was important that returning citizens and people with drug convictions be permitted to own cannabis businesses, that social equity applicants are immediately eligible for loans and grants and that community reinvestment funding should be expedited, rather than waiting for marijuana tax revenue to be generated.

It further called on regulators to promulgate rules for marketing hemp and CBD products. And the director said adult-use marijuana revenue should be used to offset the tax on medical cannabis products for patients.

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) similarly called for the elimination of the medical marijuana tax, in addition to encouraging the Council to remove proposed caps on cannabis business licenses.

“It is long overdue that D.C. residents have access to safe, regulated cannabis,” MPP’s Olivia Naugle said. “This legislation will boost public health and public safety in D.C.and begin to repair the past harms cannabis prohibition has caused by reinvesting in those communities and providing opportunity in the legal cannabis industry.”

Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Office of National Affairs, said in her testimony that the proposed legislation “is the product of a thoughtful, inclusive process that relied on input from stakeholders, experts, and best practices from other jurisdictions.”

DPA made several recommendations as well, such as giving first-year licensing priority to social equity applicants, rather than existing medical cannabis operators. It also said that social equity licensees “should be guaranteed a minimum percentage of the market so that at least half of all the cannabis grown and sold in the District is grown and sold by a social equity business.”

Further, the group encouraged the Council to enact regulations that don’t fully ban public smoking of cannabis, but rather treat it the same as tobacco.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who represents the District in Congress, said on Thursday that she is “closer than ever” to removing the blockade on cannabis commerce in her district.

Meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said in April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational marijuana sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.

Bowser introduced a cannabis commerce bill in February, though her measure was not on the agenda for Friday’s hearing alongside the cannabis legalization proposal put forward by Mendelson.

Under the chairman’s bill, at least half of marijuana business licensees would issued to social equity applicants, defined as people who faced previous convictions for cannabis-related offenses or have lived in areas with high levels of poverty, unemployment or marijuana arrests for 10 of the past 20 years.

The tax rate for adult-use marijuana products would be set at 13 percent, while medical cannabis would be taxed at six percent.

Thirty percent of tax revenue from cannabis sales would go toward a Cannabis Equity and Opportunity Fund, which would “provide loans, grants and technical assistance to these applicants.

Fifty percent of tax revenue would go to a community reinvestment fund that would provide grants to “organizations addressing issues such as economic development, homeless prevention, support for returning citizens, and civil legal aid in areas with high poverty, unemployment, and gun violence.

The courts would be required to identify and expunge records for people convicted of marijuana offenses made legal under the law. People who are actively incarcerated could have their sentence “modified, vacated, or set aside.

There are also consumer protections written into the legislation, ensuring that people using cannabis in compliance with the law don’t lose benefits, employment or other social services.

Local marijuana activists also proposed an amendment to Mendelson’s legalization bill that would allow small entrepreneurs to sell cannabis at farmers markets. It’s not clear when D.C. lawmakers will convene again to vote on proposed changes and the overall legislation.

The separate medical cannabis bill that the Council considered on Friday would allow patients to obtain marijuana from any registered dispensary in the District, instead of just one that they’re registered with under current law. A summary says that dispensaries could also “operate safe use treatment facilities as well as offer tastings and demonstrations and/or classes with the proper endorsements” under the proposal.

Further, delivery and curbside pickup would be permitted. The cap on the number of plants that a cultivation center can grow would be eliminated, and the number of dispensaries permitted in the District would be increased. Additionally, the bill seeks to remove “certain prohibitions against returning citizens ability to take part in the medical marijuana industry.”

In March, a federal oversight agency determined that the congressional rider blocking marijuana sales in D.C. does not preclude local officials from taking procedural steps to prepare for the eventual reform, such as holding hearings, even if they cannot yet enact it with the blockade pending.

Weeks before this committee meeting, a provision of a separate marijuana measure that could have led to a broad crackdown on the city’s unregulated market for recreational cannabis was removed—a win for advocates who had rallied against the proposal.

Activists strongly criticized the proposed measure over a component that would have punished businesses that “gift” marijuana in a manner that effectively circumvents the local prohibition on retail cannabis sales.

The bill contains separate provisions that are meant to help patients maintain their registration for medical cannabis and allow them to shop at medical dispensaries to encourage them not to make purchases in the illicit market. The mayor instituted emergency policies last year to make it so patient registrations wouldn’t expire during the coronavirus public health crisis, but those expired in July, resulting in thousands of patients no longer being eligible for cannabis in the regulated, medical market.

Mendelson previously said that drop off from patient registration rolls means some may be going to non-regulated sources for their cannabis because of financial and logistical challenges associated with re-registering for the program. And so his proposed legislation is meant to lower barriers to accessing medical cannabis.

Separately, another group of activists recently announced an effort to pressure local lawmakers enact broad drug decriminalization, with a focus on promoting harm reduction programs, in the nation’s capital. A poll released last month found that voters are strongly in favor of proposals.

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