Erin Palmer is well aware she’s got a huge task ahead of her. The 40-year-old ethics lawyer and mother-of-three is hoping to unseat D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a three-term incumbent who she readily admits is “an institution” of District politics.
But Palmer isn’t interested in engaging in the vitriolic discourse that often animates important political races. An advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4, she’d much rather get deep into the issues and policies that affect local residents on a daily basis.
When it comes to cannabis policy, her opponent has become somewhat of a polarizing figure. On the one hand, Mendelson has spearheaded legislation to legalize recreational cannabis sales despite a Congressional ban on retail weed in the District. He’s also advocated for D.C.’s medical weed businesses by pushing to lift restrictions on dispensaries and growers amid a downturn in revenue for the industry.
But for D.C’s many weed “gifting” businesses that operate without a city permit, he’s essentially known as public enemy number one. Since last year, the council chairman has been on a crusade to shut down D.C.’s gray market for weed, repeatedly proposing legislation to ramp up enforcement against “gifting” shops by slapping them with expensive fines and other penalties.
Palmer, a Colorado native, generally has a softer stance on weed. In an interview with The Outlaw Report, she laid out her vision for cannabis legalization in the District, stressing the importance of bringing unlicensed weed shops “in the daylight” and refraining from knee-jerk reactions that seek to over-criminalize drugs.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So how are you getting along these days? How’s the campaign going?
Good, you know, taking everything day by day.
It’s been interesting and very substantive. We’ve managed to keep a lot of the focus on talking about issues, and talking about Council governance, which is one of the big things for me because it’s tied to my professional background. That’s been positive in terms of putting pressure on the current Council chair. He is an institution. He’s been around for a long time. But even so, I think the thing that has surprised me most is that many people just don’t even understand what the position is or does.
So how are you getting the word out then?
The campaign launched in September and we were doing weekly neighborhood walks in different parts of the city with community leaders. That was really productive, just from a learning perspective. We started with a heavier focus on wards eight, seven and five because those neighborhoods are often neglected and underserved. But we’ve consistently been throughout D.C. – it’s kind of a nerdy thing ANC commissioners like to do: neighborhood walks.
Have people been receptive to your ideas and what you’re bringing to the table?
I think so, yes. There’s a little bit of a hurdle with some folks in terms of the “who are you?” But it’s helpful when I’m able to explain I’ve lived here for almost 20 years and have children in school, and have been an ANC commissioner and worked in the D.C. courts. I have a long history of doing local work. It’s just an exercise in talking to people about that.
Got it. Well, before we get into the nitty-gritty of weed policy, I thought I’d ask what cannabis means to you, personally.
Yes. Well I grew up as a younger person in Boulder, Colorado, which has its own relationship to weed. One of my mom’s friends had a weed cookbook and does all kinds of weed stuff. So it was normalized to some degree for me.
I smoke weed occasionally, usually for sleep facilitation. And I appreciate that there’s been more thought and discussion around weed’s medical purposes, but also that it’s not just a medical thing, that people do it recreationally and it’s by-and-large just fine.
Thanks for being candid about that. Politicians don’t always like talking about their own weed use.
D.C. is in a strange place right now when it comes to cannabis. It’s legal to consume and we’ve got a medical weed program, but Congress keeps blocking us from launching a regulated market for adult use. As a result, we’ve got a thriving gray market with dozens of unlicensed weed “gifting” shops across the city.
Your opponent, Phil Mendelson, has repeatedly proposed legislation to shut down the gray market by imposing hefty fines and penalties on gifting shops. Would you seek more enforcement against gray market businesses as council chair?
I would not. And I don’t think there’s support for it. There’s a reason why it doesn’t seem to be moving through the council.
So where do you stand on the “gifting” question and what’s your vision for legalization?
Well, the first thing that stands out to me is the fairness side of it. We passed Initiative 71 years ago and we’ve had this period where an alternative market has been allowed to develop. People have been trying to navigate what’s possible and informal structures have been built around that.
So this idea that years later, we would clamp down on that – because civil enforcement is still punitive – is unfair. We should be trying to integrate the informal markets in ways that prepare us for legalization. The structures we put in place should be the baseline for what we want to see once we get some movement in Congress.
Got it. So you’re talking about folding the gray market into a more legal structure?
Yes. And I think there are some informal efforts to do that. Some coalitions are trying to create – for lack of a better word – gentlemen’s agreements on how to coexist with the government. And while that can’t formally happen, we can continue to pursue that. I don’t think many folks want to be operating illegally or under the shadows. It’s just a question of finding the line and setting a path to move that forward.
So what is that line when it comes to gifting businesses?
If there are problems with product quality, like if a product is unsafe, that’s its own public health issue. And I think if you push it more into the black, you’ll have more problems with that. But again, bringing people into informal regulatory agreements makes it more likely that there are standards and procedures. These businesses won’t disappear, they’ll just shift to something else. So I’d rather have that be in conjunction with community members and with governments, however informal it may be.
Many folks in D.C.’s gray market say there’s just not enough room for them to join the legal weed industry because there are so few licenses. Would you support increasing the number of weed permits in the District?
Well, again, the markets that exist are going to exist, they just take different forms and shapes. So this has to be considered as one mechanism to integrate the gifting market and we should have an open discussion about what there’s space for. I don’t know what the exact number would be, but I think we can have a real discussion on what the market can expand to.
One recent council bill proposed lifting the requirement for a doctor’s note to sign up for a medical cannabis card. Instead, people could self-certify that they’re using weed for medical reasons. Is that something you would get behind?
I’m generally supportive of that. I’ve answered a lot of questions recently about mental health needs from counselors in schools. My general philosophy is that we should trust people about what they need – and that extends to the realm of weed as well. What’s more complicated is what self-certification means for the medical market, and how the gray market can be folded into a more formalized legalized structure.
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee says gifting shops are contributing to violent crime. Do you share those concerns? Has that ever come up for you as an ANC commissioner?
To my knowledge, there are no gifting businesses within my specific district. What I’ve told people from the gifting side is that it’s important to build a relationship with your ANC to show you’re a good neighbor. That’s the groundwork for a more positive relationship with the community.
I don’t believe gifting is inherently tied to crime. And in fact, I think efforts to increase enforcement would only make things worse by pushing people from gray market to black market. We want this to be as much in the daylight as possible, because that’s how you quasi-regulate and get to a system that is functionally in between.
Let’s switch gears because I want to talk about the opioid epidemic. Earlier this year, D.C. lost 19 people in two mass overdose incidents tied to fentanyl. How do we prevent these kinds of tragedies?
Yeah, so I’ll start with a personal story. My husband gave CPR to somebody on the street who was having a drug overdose. We never really figured out what happened, and that person may have died. So this is literally a thing that’s happening right in front of us and it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
There’s federal funding and programming we can take advantage of that we have mismanaged and we lose lots of federal funds on various things. So there’s a federal monies element to all of this, and there’s the education component. We have decent access to Narcan and training, but that’s something that should be continual.
Then there’s these proposed Harm Reduction Centers, which I think are a good idea. And we should be moving forward with that because, again, you want sunshine on things. You want them to happen in a way that you can keep track and make sure people are safe. So I’m hopeful we can move forward with something.
And how do you feel about providing people recovering from addiction with a safe supply of drugs? Or the idea of legalizing small amounts of hard drugs to encourage safe use?
Yes, I am supportive. And I think there’s a lot to learn from other jurisdictions here. Let’s make sure we’re paying attention to what’s happening in other places and learn from their data to have the best model and best information. That being said. I think things like harm reduction centers are harder concepts for community buy in. So it will take a level of engagement and education to explain why this is the better alternative.
Should the criminal justice system be tough on people who sell potentially lethal drugs like fentanyl?
Yeah, I think at a certain point, there are legitimate bad actors. People who are taking advantage of communities, people who are putting dangerous products into cities and neighborhoods. And that, frankly, can be where the enforcement part comes in. Rather than having broad enforcement about anything and everything, let’s focus on the actual health and safety issues that are serious.
Onto magic mushrooms. There’s growing research that shows psilocybin is an effective tool to treat depression, anxiety and PTSD. What are your thoughts on the medicinal use of psychedelics?
I’m just less familiar with it. But I think to the extent there’s health values, that’s absolutely worth pursuing. I’ll definitely keep an eye on it.
Sounds good. What else has been on your mind?
Well, I’ll say we’re in a strange time nationally in terms of how people talk about crime and police. I think it’s dangerous to go back to these concepts of over-criminalizing and over-punishing. But there seems to be some appetite for it. And I really think it will take moral leadership to hold us back from making those short-sighted decisions just because people are scared. I don’t want to fear-monger or play to people’s fears. I want actual solutions that keep communities safe, which by-and-large is addressing disinvestment and poverty.