Legislators in Washington, D.C. decided to remove a provision in a marijuana emergency bill that could have resulted in the restriction of the unregulated market, reported Marijuana Moment. The change occurred one day before the bill is deliberated on November 2.
The unregulated market exists through the practice of “gifting,” in which businesses sell non-cannabis products and provide marijuana as “gifts.” It is seen as an effective way to get around prohibition laws and protocols surrounding the retail of such products. Marijuana Moment also highlighted that the district does not have a regulated market.
It is important to note that possessing and gifting marijuana has been legal in D.C. after it received positive votes in the 2014 ballot initiative. Individuals who give marijuana as freebies should not receive any compensation for the gifts.
Ballot Initiative 71 made it legal to possess, use for personal consumption, and cultivate plants in small numbers, said DCist.
It is important to note that selling and buying marijuana remains illegal even with Initiative 71. Legislation regarding this matter remained at a standstill because of Congress blocking. The approval of the emergency bill will allow the retail of cannabis in D.C. In the meantime, sellers and consumers operate under the gray market through gifting.
Law enforcement authorities have been asserting that Initiative 71 does not make gifting legal. As a result, it has been policing some of the businesses leading to events and stores being shut down. They have also been confiscating various cannabis products.
However, this practice could have been prohibited if the provision was not removed. Advocate groups expressed concern about the measure as it does not make it easy for patients to maintain their medical marijuana cards and give them access to licensed products through medical dispensaries while they renew their registrations.
This has become a concern in the district as around 12,000 patients were left with expired registration after the emergency policies placed by Mayor Muriel Bowser expired in July. This policy extended patients’ registrations during the pandemic until July of this year.
The current emergency bill proposed by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was designed to make medical cannabis more accessible. However, the original state of the bill would have placed penalties and punishments for stores that sell marijuana through storefronts or deliveries. It could have resulted in the cancellation of licenses, sealing off their stores, and fines starting at $30,000.
To be able to operate again, business owners will need to submit a plan on how to avoid making the same violations. Landlords who rent out their properties to these businesses would have also faced penalties. A segment of tax revenue from legal marijuana sales will also be funneled toward priority communities such as those of people of color and low-income areas.
It also tackles equity and diversity through a social equity program that would allow applicants in low-income communities to gain priority. Those who suffered from the inequitable implementation of marijuana laws are also to be given priority status.
Mendelson defended these provisions saying that it is the gray market is becoming “a real problem.” He said, “We have a legit business that’s suffering because of the black market. We can try to do something more than we have been.”
In an interview, he also commented, “We want the medical side of this to survive because we expect that when we are able to regulate and permit sales, chances are that medical dispensers will go into the recreational business.”
The bill is also seen as a response to the risks opened by the unregulated market. It gained priority through a council resolution that sought to expedite its hearing.
According to the document, “The products sold by illegal storefronts and delivery services are not traced or tested, putting patients who cannot afford to possess medical cannabis from a licensed dispensary at risk of ingesting contaminated products.”
The resolution also asserts that such businesses have been linked to violence such as robberies and shootings.
Meanwhile, DCist noted that the legislative move could have been prompted by an increasing “tension” between businesses that offer marijuana as gifts and licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. Licensed dispensaries operate under the current medical marijuana program which means it is subject to taxation and strict regulation.
This is observed to pose problems with medical marijuana patients who have limited resources to purchase from legitimate dispensaries but find gifting more accessible.
Activists are against this crackdown as it criminalizes businesses that are filling the gap made by the lack of regulation in the district. They are also worried that these restrictions could result in similar systemic problems that treated communities inequitably before the legalization.
They argued that these businesses technically do not violate laws as they do not receive payments for the gifts, but for non-cannabis products.
The change in the emergency bill was announced on Monday through Mendelson’s website. It says, “Language regarding civil enforcement and penalties against illegal cannabis shops has been removed from the bill.”
Instead of the crackdown measures, the bill will facilitate a more convenient way to register for a medical marijuana card through the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) as long as they have a physician’s recommendation within the past two years.
Those who need to re-register their expired registration will be allowed to keep it as long as its expiry date falls between March 1, 2020 to January 31, 2022. Applicants who submitted their forms before January 31, 2022, can also receive two-year registrations from regulators. DCist noted that MMJ cards in DC originally last for one year.
Meanwhile, owners of licensed dispensaries support the legislation. While gifting stores and dispensaries used to have no problem before the pandemic, the economic and logistic effect of the public health issue took away a huge chunk of their sales, which went to gifting businesses. They believe that successful regulation can only be achieved once their storefronts have been reined in
The emergency bill will be tackled on November 2 and needs to receive nine votes to officially receive approval.