While Washington D.C. Councilmember David Grosso is not planning on running for reelection, he still has high hopes for the future of the District. Expungement of cannabis-related records and a tax-and-regulate cannabis system are just a few of his plans, though he’s not alone. Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced the Safe Cannabis Sales Act in 2019, which Grosso described to The Outlaw Report as “a good start.” He believes his bills will “go way deeper.”
Grosso, along with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, wrote an opinion article published by The Washington Post in April 2019 that criticized Congress for blocking D.C. from regulating its cannabis market. The “dangerous legal limbo” the D.C. currently endures, as described by Grosso and Racine, prevents the city from addressing glaring racial inequities.
Data released in 2018 from the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department reported that African-Americans represented 90.85% of cannabis arrests recorded in D.C. in the year 2017. Approximately half, or 46.4%, of D.C.’s population is composed of African-Americans, while 45.6% of the population is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As a long-time supporter of cannabis policy in the District, Grosso told The Outlaw Report in an interview, “This is not something I do out of motivation for people to get high. This is something that I do out of motivation to stop treating people differently in our country and particularly end the war on drugs and the impact that it’s had on black communities. This is a racial equity question.”
In the following Q&A, Grosso speaks about being an early supporter of cannabis in the D.C. Council, his pro-cannabis legislation, and how he believes the D.C. Council should “do what is best for the people of the District of Columbia in spite of the [Harris] rider,” no matter the consequences.
What is your current overarching vision of cannabis for the District?
I’d like to get us to a point like many other jurisdictions have gotten, which is to have a tax-and-regulate system here in the city that is similar to the way that we tax and regulate alcoholic beverages.
I would also like to maintain a separate approach for medical marijuana than from recreational marijuana because I understand there is still stigma. People in the District of Columbia may not necessarily want to consume recreational marijuana, but would like to still have the opportunity to do it through a medical recommendation.
I would like to also see the testing and studying of marijuana expanded here in the District of Columbia and throughout the country.
Finally, I would love to see this city be able to adopt an education plan that incorporates the benefits and the risks of taking marijuana for whatever purposes, so that we can elevate the education around it so that youth are not resorting to it when it’s inappropriate.
What would you say have been some key moments in your career when it comes to your past work that has been pro-cannabis?
When I was first on the Council, there were members who were doing a decriminalization of marijuana bill. I heard very loud and clear the first time that I was running for office in 2012 that the public would support more of a tax-and-regulate framework. They also were working on Initiative 71, which would make it legal in the District, but the thing that I would say was most impactful on me was in the summer of 2013. I read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” and I also read a few reports that had been done on the District of Columbia when it came to arrests for non-violent drug offenses, in particular marijuana. All of that led me to believe that this was a racial justice question that we needed to begin to decriminalize marijuana to stop criminalizing the poor in our city. The challenge at that point was trying to slow down the momentum of just decriminalization on the drugs and actually increase it to a tax-and-regulate approach.
Of course, Initiative 71 passed with over 70% of the population supporting it (Note: It was actually 64.87%), and then my bill, which I had introduced in September 2013, was promptly blocked in Congress by Andy Harris in Maryland. That was a major setback for us. I then convinced my colleagues a year later on a new bill that I introduced, and as they were getting ready to gavel in the hearing, they got a letter from a Congressman, saying that we’d be in violation of the Antideficiency Act, and they would enforce it. My colleagues chickened out and did not do it. Ultimately, we have been in a holding pattern ever since then.
Whenever this is a hot button issue for the District of Columbia, I’ve also noticed that many of my colleagues and other leaders in the city are unwilling to use this as an example for Home Rule and trying to get us power in Congress. I find that disappointing because we could have used it as a direct civil disobedience opportunity by simply moving a law that the people in the District of Columbia support, and no one has been willing to do that.
When I first introduced my bill in 2013, I did it all by myself. When I introduced it the last time, which was my fourth time doing it, the majority of the Council joined me, and the Mayor, herself, who has not in the past expressed support for this has now introduced her own legislation to tax and regulate marijuana.
So, there have been a lot of moments along the way where understanding of this issue has evolved to a better place, but for the reality that we are treated the way we are by Congress, this would already be the law of the land in the District of Columbia.
You mentioned Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Safe Cannabis Sales Act. What are your opinions on that?
I think that it is a good start, but the bill that I introduced is way more comprehensive and a better approach. Mine is developed from a racial equity stance, and so my bill will allow people who have been previously involved in the drug trade to participate in the legal market, and her bill does not.
My bill is also in companionship with a bill I introduced to reform all of the sealing and expungement laws in D.C. That would go way deeper into that issue than the Mayor’s does. She also does not dedicate any of the money she would raise to specific education efforts or to supporting people who may be caught up in the war on drugs, but now would like to start a business in D.C. My bill will give them technical and financial support to do that, and my bill will also dedicate $750,000 to drug use and abuse prevention with young people, which she does not do.
The Mayor’s bill is not necessarily something that I think can get through and even pass constitutional muster. The reality is that she is dedicating that a certain portion of these license holders must be D.C. residents, which is likely unconstitutional to begin with. Mine goes through a whole process with the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board where they will go through and determine who the best owners of these were by giving preference to people who have been formerly caught up in the war on drugs.
The Harris Rider extends through September of this year. What do you think might happen around that time? Do you think there is a possibility for your bill and any related ones to move forward? Or do you believe the rider might continue onwards?
We had some hope that the Democrats taking control of the House would remove the rider among many other riders, and they did try. They took it off. Then we thought, ‘Maybe the Senate now is evolved enough to not think this was so important, that they wouldn’t waste their time on a rider,’ but they did. There wasn’t a whole lot that we could do to prevent it because we don’t have two Senators like every other jurisdiction in the country.
The fact is that when this bill has to be revisited this fall, my hope is that they will remove this rider. I am not entirely optimistic simply because this is the world that we live in the District of Columbia. Pulling off the riders that were pulled off in the past were only done when we had majority control of the House and the Senate and forced it on the President at the time. I’m not confident.
I do not think they will enforce the Antideficiency Act in this situation. I think they will whine and complain, send us letters that are threatening, and then do nothing.
The reality is that if they did arrest us or if they did come after us, it would be a golden opportunity for us to elevate the conversation around Home Rule, so that the rest of the country and world sees what a disgrace it is that we do not have voting representation in the nation’s capital in the United States of America.
There have been reports that state that you are not running for reelection. Is this true?
It is true. I am not running for reelection. After two terms, I will be passing on the baton.
Who do you plan on passing the baton?
I have endorsed Christina Henderson, who used to work for me and was the original author of my tax and regulation bill.
What do you expect will happen to your bill afterwards? Will Henderson be the one to move it forward?
You would have to ask her what her plans are. My hope is that she and others would move it forward. As it is right now, no one is opposed to it on the Council.
What’s next for you in the private sector?
I have not chosen what I’m going to do next. I still have until the end of December to figure that out. I’m looking now for good opportunities, and I’m going to be very selective.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo courtesy of Councilmember David Grosso’s office