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Expect a ‘tax-and-regulate’ proposal for marijuana in D.C. next year, Bowser says

The mayor and other District leaders have high hopes for the Democrat-controlled House

A cannabis flag outside the U.S. Capitol at a 2017 protest
CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

House Republicans aren’t the only ones who woke up in a haze on Wednesday. Two top D.C. elected officials say they will work to overturn current restrictions on the sale of recreational marijuana in the District by taking advantage of the Democrats’ new House majority in 2019.

At a post-election press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she would introduce a “tax-and-regulate” bill for legal weed to the D.C. Council next year. She did not provide specifics about what the proposal would include, but called the status quo in the District—where it is legal to possess and consume small amounts of recreational pot, yet not buy it—“untenable.”

“I believe [the present situation] makes us unsafe,” Bowser said, without offering further explanation. Initiative 71, a widely supported 2014 ballot measure, allowed adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow no more than six marijuana plants at home, and gift up to one ounce of marijuana to other adults. Under the law, no money, goods, or services may be exchanged for weed. Adults are barred from using it in public.

After the initiative passed, House Republicans blocked the District from spending any local funds on regulating marijuana. Since 2015, they have included anti-pot prohibitions, known as budget “riders,” in the annual House appropriations bill. This has led to a gray market for weed in D.C., where vendors have sought to sidestep the law. Congress carries this kind of authority over the District but not states, and has often used riders to limit local decisions.

The Council is likely to be receptive to Bowser’s promised proposal. David Grosso, an at-large councilmember, has repeatedly introduced legislation to set up regulations for pot sales. And a 2016 study by the Tax Foundation found that the District could raise more than $10 million a year from such sales. (States like Colorado have raised tens of millions of dollars annually.)

“It’s all in the details and since the congressional rider has another year of life we can spend it discussing the best way forward to adult sales,” says Adam Eidinger, the activist who led the Initiative 71 movement and has helped organized many protests. “[Bowser’s] move is all about commercial sales as cannabis was made legal by the people, not politicians, in 2014.”

Like the mayor, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton also wants to get rid of the congressional marijuana rider, among others. Following Democrats’ flip of the House, Norton, who lacks a vote on final legislation, said in a statement on Wednesday that she would “continue to fight to remove” this rider and another one that prevents the District from spending local funds on abortions for low-income women. She called for “equal citizenship and statehood” for D.C.

The possession, sale, and use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, meaning that people cannot consume or exchange weed on federal land in D.C., including national parks. Medical weed is already legal in the District, with cards given out by the health department.

This post has been updated with comment from Eidinger.