The D.C. Council will move forward with legislation to legalize recreational cannabis sales despite a lingering Congressional ban on retail weed in the nation’s capital.
In a notice published on Friday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie and Charles Allen announced that a public hearing on the Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act will be held on Friday, Nov. 19.
The bill, which was introduced by Mendelson and six other councilmembers in March, would create a legal framework for adult-use cannabis sales, automatically expunge cannabis-related arrests and convictions, and allocate half of all tax revenue from weed sales to a fund aimed at repairing the harm of prohibition on local communities.
The council will also hear public comments on the Medical Cannabis Amendment Act, a bill released by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in February that would double the number of permitted medical cannabis dispensaries in the District from eight to 16, allow some formerly incarcerated individuals to participate in the industry, and permanently lift a slew of restrictions on cultivators and dispensaries.
The announcement of a hearing on Mendelson’s bill comes after months of speculation by cannabis advocates and industry stakeholders on whether the council would advance legalization legislation or wait for Congress to lift a locally reviled budget rider that blocks the District from launching a regulated market for recreational pot.
The possession, use, and gifting of recreational cannabis became legal in D.C. after District voters approved a ballot referendum on legalization in 2014. But a Congressional budget provision first introduced by Sen. Andy Harris (R-Md.) has since blocked local officials from legalizing recreational sales. In that awkward legal limbo, “grey market” cannabis shops have cropped up across the District where weed is “gifted” to customers with the purchase of various legal items like t-shirts, stickers, potted plants.
The Nov. 19 hearing will be the D.C. Council’s first official hearing on a bill to legalize recreational cannabis sales. In 2015, the council had backed down on holding a hearing after D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine warned that legislators could face prison time for flouting the Congressional ban. As a workaround, the council had held a “roundtable discussion” that didn’t officially count towards the bill’s passage.
But Racine has since changed his stance, releasing a statement in 2019 that argued the council could “lawfully engage in the legislative process” to legalize retail cannabis, “including the introduction of legislation and hearings.”
Lindsey Walton, a spokesperson for Chairman Mendelson, told The Outlaw Report on Monday that the decision to schedule a hearing on the bill was not predicated on any insider information that Congress would soon lift the ban on recreational sales in the District.
“We want to hold the hearing and we’re hopeful that [the rider] will be lifted but that’s not a guarantee,” Walton said. “We didn’t get a note or a message saying hey, it’s going to happen. We don’t know.”
She said that the council could “potentially” vote on the bill before Congress lifts the cannabis rider, though the mayor could not legally sign it, and she doesn’t expect a vote to happen any time soon.
“There would have to be a lot of things in place before it can go up for a vote,” Walton said.
Council rules allow a vote on legislation as early as one week after it receives a public hearing, but the bill would first need to be marked up by all three committees it was assigned to.
“I can’t imagine that they’d be able to turn it around that fast,” she said.
Walton said the council is working on establishing a list of witnesses for the hearing and that she expects business agencies, law enforcement agencies, and other government agencies will testify. She added that the expungement of cannabis-related records will be discussed “in-depth.”
There are no plans for a separate hearing on Mayor Bowser’s competing bill to legalize recreational sales, Walton said, though some provision of that legislation could make it into the final version of the chairman’s bill.
“I’m not going to say [the mayor’s bill] is dead on arrival but the basis of the hearing is the council bill,” she said.
Meanwhile, it’s still unclear whether Congress will remove the D.C. cannabis rider from its FY2022 budget. The House passed a spending package that omitted the rider in August, but the Senate has yet to decide on the fate of the bill, which Republicans have threatened to block over a proposed increased to the federal debt ceiling.
Lawmakers in the Senate now have until Friday to approve the House’s funding bill or a government shutdown will be triggered. And even if a rider-free spending package passes the Senate, it will still require a signature from President Joe Biden, whose administration has so far proved lukewarm on the legalization of cannabis.