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Recreational Sales On The Horizon For Washington, D.C.

November 23, 2021

Washington, D.C.’s City Council held a marathon, 9-hour meeting Friday to discuss the future of cannabis sales in the U.S. capital, during which more than 100 interested speakers offered input, according to council chair Phil Mendelson. After seven years of legal limbo, legal sales of recreational cannabis in the District of Columbia appear to be a legitimate possibility. Because D.C. lacks statehood, the path to a licit sales regime is controlled by Congress and has been blocked since residents voted for legalization in 2014.

That resistance now appears to be softening. Congressional Republicans recently decided not to oppose D.C. enacting taxes on recreational sales and the Senate Appropriations Committee last month released a spending bill with the provisions preventing sales removed. If the appropriations bill makes it through Congress intact, nothing would stand in the way of the City Council setting up sales.

That would be a major development for the District’s approximately 700,000 residents, who have had no legal way to obtain a product that’s been legal to possess since 2014. It would also have significant economic implications—sales in D.C. would generate $50 million in sales in their first year and more than $200 million by year four, according to projections. Sales would be bolstered by the many Virginia and Maryland residents who commute into D.C. every day.

In lieu of legal sales, an elaborate “gifting” system has sprung up in D.C., where consumers technically order a candy bar or a soda and receive a bonus “gift” of cannabis along with it. That unique history with a slow, uncertain end to prohibition gave rise to unexpected concerns during the council meeting, with multiple speakers demanding that gifting businesses be given first opportunity to participate in the new sales regime.

The prospect of sales in D.C. still faces considerable hurdles, and the language forbidding them could always be placed back into the appropriations bill. Still, many involved are optimistic. D.C.’s non-voting representative Eleanor Holmes Norton said she will fight efforts to place any additional provisions that could prevent sales from coming into being. “Eighteen states have legalized recreational marijuana, and all have or will commercialize it,” Norton said. “D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District and throughout the country.”—Danny Sullivan

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