The mayor of Washington, D.C. and city lawmakers want to regulate marijuana sales—but they have differing visions about what that system should look like.
On Monday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) introduced a cannabis regulation bill that’s being touted by reform advocates. The move comes days after Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) unveiled her own reform proposal, setting the stage for some debate as the city moves to enact the policy change.
At face value, the competing pieces of legislation are similar: both would build on the District’s 2014 law legalizing marijuana possession and home cultivation by creating a regulated market that prioritizes social equity just as such a move is expected to be finally allowed with Democrats in control of Congress and empowered to remove a federal rider that has blocked local reform in the nation’s capital.
But there are differences between the leaders’ bills when it comes to licensing, the tax rate, how revenue is appropriated and expungements.
“The Act is the culmination of over a year of work by my office and various stakeholders to draft a proposal that creates a comprehensive regulatory framework for the cultivation, production, and sale of recreational cannabis while centering reinvestment and opportunity for people and communities hit hardest by the drug war,” Mendelson said in an explanation of his proposal, which is being cosponsored by a majority of his fellow Council members.
This legislation creates a comprehensive regulatory framework for the cultivation, production and sale of recreational cannabis. Importantly this bill centers reinvestment on, and creates opportunities for, the people and communities that were hit hardest by the War on Drugs(2/2) pic.twitter.com/U9mo5ugrBO
— Phil Mendelson (@ChmnMendelson) March 1, 2021
Bowser’s bill largely reflects past proposals, though it does include new licensing provisions and funding mechanisms that are meant to bolster social equity in the industry.
“This is about safety, equity, and justice,” Bowser said last week. “Through this legislation, we can fulfill the will of D.C. voters, reduce barriers for entering the cannabis industry, and invest in programs that serve residents and neighborhoods hardest hit by the criminalization of marijuana.”
For its part, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is pushing the new proposal from the chairman over the mayor’s approach, lauding the former in a press release as a “sweeping bill” that tackles the regulatory side of the market while effectively promoting social equity and reinvestments for communities most impacted by prohibition.
DPA’s Queen Adesuyi said that as Congress moves to federally deschedule cannabis, “it is critical that this injustice in their own backyard finally comes to an end and home rule is respected. It is past time for D.C. to be able to fully realize these benefits by seeking justice reform and equity within their own legal marketplace.”
“The proposal creates a comprehensive and equitable regulatory framework for a recreational cannabis market in the District,” Mendelson said. “This bill centers reinvestment on—and creates opportunities for—the people and communities that were hit hardest by the drug war.”
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-Tax rate: Bowser’s bill would establish a 17 percent tax on marijuana sales, while Mendelson’s would impose a 13 percent tax.
-Revenue: Both bills call for the establishment of two revenue funds to cover the administrative costs of implementing the program and promote social equity. Bowser’s measure would fund cannabis business grants for people living in two specific wards, and it would also provide monies to support small grocery stores and pay for school supplies in those areas. Mendelson’s, meanwhile, would take 30 percent of marijuana tax revenue and put it toward outreach for community outreach and services like job training to help people most impacted by the drug war enter the industry. Fifty percent would fund community-based groups who work on issues like homelessness prevention, legal aid and youth development. The remaining 20 percent would go to a general fund.
-Licensing: People who’ve been convicted of a cannabis-related offense, lived in a disadvantaged community for 10 of the past 20 years or who already operate a medical marijuana dispensary would get licensing priority under the chairman’s legislation. The mayor is similarly proposes licensing prioritization for returning citizens who’ve been arrested or convicted of cannabis-related offenses, as well as veterans and residents from disadvantaged communities.
-Expungements: Automatic expungements would be provided under both pieces of legislation. However, Bowser’s bill carves out exemptions for cases involving firearms, other illicit drugs and violent crimes. Mendelson’s proposal does not include those exemptions; it stipulates that having ancillary charges does not disqualify a person from having a marijuana-related record expunged.
Adesuyi of DPA told Marijuana Moment that while the organization appreciates that the mayor is tackling cannabis reform, it feels that the chairman’s bill is the “better vehicle” to advance the policy change and start a conversation with the community about creating the legal market.
Also, Mendelson’s measure “address a lot more issues that stem from the collateral consequences of prohibition generally,” she said, citing the diversity of the tax revenue allocation.
Watch the chairman discuss his cannabis regulation legislation below:
Activists have also taken issue with several provisions of Bowser’s bill, including that it could limit the amount of cannabis that people could possess after growing the plant at home under the city’s current law.
Last year, the mayor released a budget plan for the 2021 fiscal year that contained a signal that the local government was preparing to implement regulations for retail marijuana sales just as soon as Congress allowed it by shifting the city’s current medical cannabis program to the jurisdiction of the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA).
Bowser also unveiled a legalization bill in 2019, and part of it called for ABRA to regulate the legal industry and for the agency to be renamed the Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration, a change that is also included in the mayor’s latest legislation.
Meanwhile, next door to the District, lawmakers in Virginia sent a marijuana legalization bill to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Saturday. On the other side of the city, legislators in Maryland are also considering legalizing cannabis this year.
In D.C., Bowser approved legislation in December to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia for personal use and promote harm reduction.
Activists filed a proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana sales in August, but it did not advance.
Separately, a local councilman introduced a bill in October that would expand opportunities for formerly incarcerated people to participate in the city’s existing medical cannabis market.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.