Recreational Weed For Washington, D.C.?

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Protesters rally in support of the legalization of marijuana in front of The White House in Washington DC Photo: Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. May See Recreational Marijuana Sales Under New Budget Bill

Legislation that has blocked adult-use cannabis sales in Washington, D.C. for seven years has been omitted from this year’s Senate appropriations bill in a move by lawmakers that could clear the way for sales of recreational marijuana in the nation’s capital.

Ever since Washington, D.C. voters legalized the personal possession and cultivation of marijuana by adults in 2014, Congress has used budget legislation to block the city government from regulating recreational cannabis sales. Known as the Harris Rider for its author, Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, the attachment to appropriations bills prevents the District of Columbia from legalizing recreational cannabis and regulating commerce in adult-use marijuana.

“The Harris rider has been a real disservice to the District,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told the Washington Post. “What Congress has done is create a wild wild west where there is no ability to have meaningful, constructive regulation.”

Medical marijuana was legalized in Washington, D.C. in 1998 and again by the district council in 2010, with legal sales beginning in 2013. But the Harris Rider has been approved each year since its debut in 2014, flexing Congress’ oversight of district affairs to prevent local leaders from legalizing and regulating adult-use cannabis.

However, the Senate Appropriations Committee omitted the Harris Rider from the appropriations bill for the 2022 fiscal year, which was released by the legislative panel on Monday. Appropriations legislation passed by the House of Representatives this summer also left it out, although President Biden’s budget proposal released in May retained the restriction on legal recreational pot in D.C.

If the omission of the Harris Rider survives the legislative process and is not added to the final version of this year’s appropriations bill, local leaders would be free to move ahead with legalizing recreational marijuana and regulating adult-use cannabis commerce. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has introduced legislation to legalize recreational cannabis as well as a separate proposal to expand the current medical marijuana infrastructure.

Another plan advanced by Mendelson earlier this year would prioritize local business owners over large corporations from outside the district, with taxes raised by cannabis businesses allocated to areas of Washington disproportionately impacted by poverty and the War on Drugs. A public hearing to explore Mendelson’s recreational weed measure and Bowser’s medical marijuana proposal is scheduled for next month.

“If the rider does not reappear, then we will move quickly on this legislation,” Mendelson said.

After the Senate Appropriations Committee unveiled its bill on Monday, cannabis activist Adam Eidinger of the group DC Marijuana Justice told local media that it has “been a seven-year struggle to get to this point, to remove this rider, and Democrats have been helpful. They really delivered last night.”

Eidinger noted that legalizing recreational cannabis is not only about regulating dispensaries and said that the issue is also a matter of justice reform.

“We’re going to stop putting people behind bars. That’s what this is really about,” he said. “We’re still arresting people selling cannabis in this town.”

Blake Schroeder, CEO of cannabis products manufacturer Medical Marijuana Inc., says that the time is right for Washington, D.C. to join its neighbors that have already enacted measures to legalize recreational cannabis, noting that marijuana tax revenues can help mitigate some of the harm caused by prohibition.

“It’s been proven by other cities that tax revenue from cannabis can dramatically help improve infrastructure, provide opportunities for communities historically disadvantaged by the War on Drugs, and bring new funding to public schools,” Schroeder writes in an email. “This new spending measure could help D.C. move quickly to legalize and help it begin benefiting from legal sales.”

Washington, D.C. civic leaders are calling on Congress to hold the line and leave the Harris Rider out of future versions of the bill as lawmakers negotiate its terms. If that happens, the will of the voters in the nation’s capital as expressed in 2014 could finally be realized.

“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” the mayor’s office said in a statement, adding, “We urge Congress to pass a final spending bill that similarly removes all anti-Home Rule riders, allowing D.C. to spend our local funds as we see fit.”