D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed emergency legislation last week that allows people with non-violent felony records to own—or work at—a licensed medical cannabis dispensary, cultivation center, or testing lab.
The new law, enacted on May 3, nixes a previous statute that prohibited anyone with a felony record from participating in D.C.’s medical cannabis industry. However, it still bans people convicted of violent crimes, gun offenses, tax evasion, or fraud within the last three years.
As emergency legislation, the law is set to expire on June 20. That being said, the D.C. Council is considering a separate bill that, if passed, would make the statute permanent.
Industry executives and advocates for criminal justice reform say the legislation is a crucial step towards creating a more inclusive and equitable cannabis industry in the District.
In an emailed statement, Linda Greene, chair of the DC Cannabis Trade Association, told The Outlaw Report that the law was well overdue: “I am a firm believer in rehabilitation and second chances,” Greene said.
Greene also owns Anacostia Organics, a cannabis dispensary in Ward 8.
“Members of our families, friends, and neighbors have been incarcerated far too long for the possession and the distribution of cannabis, a natural plant,” Greene said. “By allowing them to be able to work as employees, and hopefully licensees in this multi-billion dollar industry after serving their time provides them stability, security, pride, and the chance of fully re-entering our society as tax-paying residents of our great city!”
Last month, the bill was unanimously approved by all 13 members of the D.C. Council after being introduced by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. A spokesperson for McDuffie was unable to provide a comment for this story by press time.
Doni Crawford, senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said local activists helped craft the legislation, and successfully pushed it to the top of the council’s agenda: “It’s definitely a really big step forward,” Crawford said.
As D.C. inches towards fully legalizing recreational cannabis sales, advocates have pushed officials to enact cannabis laws that include reparations for people impacted by decades of harsh drug policies, also known as The War on Drugs.
“The council is making sure that returning citizens can be a part of the medical cannabis industry, which is really important, given what we know about the past harms caused by the War on Drugs and the criminalization of black and brown communities,” Crawford said.
As of today, none of D.C.’s seven cannabis dispensaries or eight cultivation centers are owned by formerly incarcerated citizens. Crawford said she was hopeful that could change soon: “Returning citizens don’t just want to be employees, but they also want to have the opportunity to own in the industry.”
The new law comes as D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) is soliciting applications for new cannabis business licenses. However, given that the law expires in June, it’s unclear whether people with felony records will be able to apply for the ABRA licenses. The deadline to submit an application is May 21.
Meanwhile, the D.C. Council is considering at least four other cannabis bills, including two competing bills to legalize recreational cannabis sales that were separately introduced by Mayor Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
Some efforts to enact cannabis reparations have recently faced resistance in the council. Last week, Councilmember At-Large Robert White withdrew a bill that reserved some of D.C.’s cannabis business licenses for formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs.
Crawford, who attended a virtual council breakfast during which White’s bill was discussed, said some council members and staffers worried White’s legislation would lack funding if passed before the council’s upcoming budget season.
Blaine Stum, a legislative advisor for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, relayed some of those concerns on Twitter on May 3. “Providing licenses without providing resources is problematic,” Stum tweeted. “We’ve seen this play out in other jurisdictions: Equity applicants end up getting gamed by predatory investors or are simply unable to open their businesses.”
There were also concerns that the law would be challenged in court for giving preferential treatment to formerly incarcerated citizens.
Moving forward, Crawford said she was hopeful that future cannabis legislation would continue to address issues of racial equity in the District.
In February, she published a report for the DC Fiscal Policy Institute that proposed incorporating several reparative measures to upcoming cannabis bills, including using cannabis tax revenue to benefit communities impacted by harsh drug laws, and automatically expunging all criminal records for cannabis-related offenses.
“Now is the time to atone for these historical injustices by ushering in a new cannabis industry in DC rooted in justice,” the report said. “Without intentionality, legalization alone will never be enough – and will only further structural racism.”