Top health officials in Washington, D.C. are pushing the city to legalize the sale of marijuana in defiance of Congress.
The nation’s capital city should “impose state taxes on production, distribution, and sales along with a licensed market participation, age restriction, and prohibitions on advertising and marketing to minors,” a new report from the District of Columbia Department of Health recommends.
It also urges decisionmakers to “use current regulatory models for tobacco and alcohol to base legislation to enact effective marijuana controls.”
The possession of small amounts of cannabis and home cultivation of up to six plants is already legal in the District under a ballot initiative that voters overwhelmingly approved in November 2014. But Congress, which has broad oversight of D.C.’s budgetary and regulatory decisions, has thrown up roadblocks to the city moving forward with legalizing, regulating and taxing sales of the drug.
D.C.’s mayor and members of the District Council say they want to allow cannabis commerce, but federal budget riders enacted in recent years have handcuffed them from spending they city’s own money to make it happen. Last month, during consideration of an appropriations bill covering Fiscal Year 2017, House Republicans moved to broaden the scope of the ban to prevent D.C. officials from using a loophole to get around the existing rider by using funds that are untouched by the current block.
Under current law, the city is barred from using money covered by specific annual appropriations bills to legalize and regulate sales:
None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.
That specific language has left open the possibility that the city could use other pools of money it has available, such as contingency reserve funds appropriated in previous years, to regulate marijuana sales. Officials told Marijuana.com last year that they were considering doing so.
But new language proposed by the House Appropriations Committee, if enacted as part of next year’s funding legislation, would prevent the city from doing that:
No funds available for obligation or expenditure by any officer or employee of the District of Columbia government may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.
Last week, Republicans blocked an amendment to strip that language from the bill from even being considered on the House floor. The companion bill in the Senate contains no language restricting D.C.’s marijuana decisions, but in the past, House riders have usually prevailed in conference committees that reconcile the differences between both chambers’ approaches.
Advocates are hoping that D.C. officials will use the budget loophole to legalize and regulate cannabis sales before that option is taken off the table by the legislation Congress seems to be moving toward enacting.
“We hope the D.C. government will move forward now, using reserve funds, to put in place a system of taxation and regulation of cannabis before the Congressional budget is signed into law,” Nikolas Schiller, co-founder and director of communications for DCMJ, the group that spearheaded the city’s 2014 marijuana ballot initiative, told Marijuana.com in an email. “The people of the District of Columbia deserve right to purchase taxed and regulated cannabis from licensed stores without Congress interfering.”
Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance agreed, saying in a statement that legalizing and regulating marijuana sales “will increase public health and safety, allow our policy makers to address much needed reforms, and generate tax revenue to fund treatment and education.”
A poll her organization commissioned earlier this year found that 66% of D.C. voters want officials to move forward with legalizing cannabis commerce despite Congress.
Photo Courtesy of Lukasz Stefanski.