D.C. Remains on Cannabis Sales Sideline in New Omnibus Bill
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D.C. Remains on Cannabis Sales Sideline in New Omnibus Bill

Congress retained a rider provision in its spending package, which prevents the city from launching commercial cannabis sales.

March 10, 2022

Washington, D.C., residents will have to ride on without access to commercial cannabis sales for at least another year.

Despite the district’s voters approving adult-use cannabis via Initiative 71 in the November 2014 election, a rider was introduced by Maryland U.S. Rep. Andy Harris the following year, which stripped the district’s power to regulate a retail industry within its roughly 68-square-mile borders. Commonly referred to as the Harris rider, the provision that blocks the district from taxing and regulating cannabis sales has been in place ever since.

While there were hopes among district officials and industry advocates that a Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress would strip that provision this year, that wasn’t the case. Congress retained the rider in the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package, House Resolution 2741, which it unveiled March 9.

Since the District of Columbia is not a state, Congress retains oversight on the city’s laws and can restrict how its officials use local funds.

But certain elected officials in the district were not so thrilled about the rider retention, The Washington Post reported.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat who has introduced legislation to legalize cannabis sales in the district, told the news outlet that Congress “has set up for the district, with this rider, a public safety problem. I can’t be strong enough about this.”

Mendelson pointed to a thriving illicit market that brings along criminal activity.

Under current law, district residents 21 and older can possess, consume, home cultivate and gift cannabis, the latter of which has opened the door for differing interpretations of the term “gift” when it comes to charging for merchandise or memberships in exchange for “free” cannabis, which is not regulated or taxed.

U.S. Cannabis Council CEO Steven Hawkins expressed disappointment in Congress’ failure to act on cannabis reform for the district in its spending bill.

“Congress had been poised to make real progress, including clearing hurdles put in place by Rep. Andy Harris which prevent the District of Columbia from implementing regulated cannabis sales following a successful legalization referendum,” Hawkins said in a statement. “This created a harmful underground market that operates without any standards or safeguards and is at odds with the will of local voters.

“USCC strongly supports the cannabis-related provisions that were not implemented in the final omnibus bill, including protections for cannabis research and banking services. We understand the realities of the appropriations process and have confidence that Congress can still advance cannabis reform this session, including banking protections and expungement. Next week, leading cannabis industry CEOs will be in Washington to help move this work forward.”

In anticipation of a possible Harris rider removal, the district’s city council members and Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed legislation, the Comprehensive Legalization and Regulation Act of 2021, last year in an attempt to take control of regulated and taxed cannabis sales in their jurisdiction. They held a public hearing on the legislation in November.

According to advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project, the legislation aimed to establish a regulatory scheme for the licensing, production and retail sale of adult-use cannabis in the district, allow for automatic expungement of cannabis-related arrests and convictions, and establish a social equity program.

But that legislation’s collision with the Harris rider now remains.

Following the news Wednesday that the U.S. Congress would continue to ban commercial cannabis sales in the district, Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, said on social media that illegal sales “shouldn’t be called the black market. It should be called the Harris market.”