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  • Writer's pictureKayla Ollendorff

D.C. hearing paves way for legalizing recreational cannabis sales

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

The District of Columbia Council set its first-ever hearing on a bill to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced Bill 24-118, the Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act of 2021, on March 1, 2021. The public hearing will be held Nov. 19 by the Committee of the Whole, the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety and the Committee on Business & Economic Development. In addition to B24-118, the hearing will also consider B24-113, the Medical Cannabis Amendment Act of 2021, which is a separate measure brought by Mayor Muriel Bowser. While this is still just the beginning of D.C.’s journey to legalizing recreational marijuana sales, scheduling the hearing was a feat of its own.

Recreational marijuana possession, personal use and home cultivation, in small amounts, was legalized in D.C. under voter Initiative 71 in 2014; however, Congress impeded the District from fully legalizing recreational marijuana sales. In Dec. 2014, House Republicans led by Representative Andy Harris (R-Md.) successfully imposed a budget rider, known as the Harris Rider, into the “cromnibus” spending bill, which effectively blocked legalization efforts. The bill, which included funding for D.C., stated that “none of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act,” including marijuana. Unlike other jurisdictions, D.C. was unable to defy this prohibition because it is under direct oversight from Congress due to its lack of statehood.

Attorney General Karl Racine warned local lawmakers that the Harris Rider banned the act of holding a public debate on legalizing recreational marijuana sales. However, earlier this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that the language of the rider only prohibits D.C. from “enacting” or “carrying out” legislation that legalizes the sale of recreational marijuana—not from drafting, discussing, or promoting proposed legislation; thus paving the way for D.C.’s first hearing on the subject. Furthermore, over the summer, House Democrats managed to remove the rider from the proposed spending bill for Fiscal Year 2022.

November’s hearing will likely focus on how the District should go about legalizing recreational marijuana sales. Chairman Mendelson’s bill “[p]rovides for the automatic review and expungement of convictions relating to cannabis or cannabis paraphernalia (other than sales to minor) within 180 days,” “[s]ets aside at least 50% of all available licenses in each license category for social equity applicants,” and “[d]irects 50% of cannabis revenue into a Community Reinvestment Program Fund” amongst other provisions aimed at reinvesting in the communities hit the hardest by the war on drugs. This bill seeks to allow those disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of recreational marijuana to take part in and develop a viable legal market.

While next month’s hearing is unlikely to create any immediate developments, the hearing is still a positive step towards legalizing recreational marijuana sales in D.C. Should Chairman Mendelson’s bill pass in the future, local practitioners will see a major shift in the prosecution of marijuana-related cases. Further, incarcerated individuals will have an opportunity to have their sentences for marijuana-related offenses modified, vacated, or set aside, which will likely require direct attorney assistance. The hearing can be live streamed starting at 9 a.m. EST on Nov. 19, and will help determine the future of recreational marijuana sales in the District.


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