Will DC Be Next With Recreational Dispensaries?

Our nation’s capital may well be the next jurisdiction to legalize recreational marijuana dispensaries. And if that occurs, it will inevitably help shape the debate in Congress over marijuana policy.

That is, of course, important for the 658,893 people who live in the District, and the 6,033,737 people who live in the metropolitan area, but it will also be a helpful step in eventually persuading Congress to remove federal impediments to full legalization at the state level.

Every member of Congress, all 435 House members and 100 senators, maintain two homes: one in the home state district where they were elected, and a second in DC, where they spend at least three days each week when Congress is in session. And while many of these elected officials from around the country currently hold exaggerated views of the dangers of marijuana smoking, simply living here and seeing the sky doesn’t fall when prohibition is ended and marijuana is legalized, is likely the most effective way for us to continue to build support for legalization in the Congress. There is nothing more persuasive than personal experience.

Many in Congress have made their reputations and based their election campaigns on the backs of the victims of the long war on marijuana smokers, and they are not likely to change overnight. Indeed, most will continue as long as they think it is a winning political argument in their home district. But seeing the nation’s capital embrace legal marijuana with few, if any, unintended consequences, and lots of measurable improvements in the criminal justice system, the police-community relations, and the quality of life in the District, will help temper the perspective of all who live here, including those members of Congress.

The Tortured History of Marijuana Policy in the District

Constitutionally, the District of Columbia is controlled by the US Congress, and since 1973, when Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, the city has enjoyed a degree of local control, electing a mayor and a 13-member City Council to determine local laws and policies. However, each new law is subject to a 30-day review by Congress before becoming effective. Should the Congress wish to override a local law, they have that legal authority.

While the Congress does not often directly override a District law enacted by the elected City Council, they do on a more regular basis use the budget process to stop the District from adopting a policy opposed by a majority of the party then in control of Congress, by enacting a rider to the DC appropriations bill that bars the District government from spending any money to advance the targeted issue. And marijuana policy in the District has at times been the target of the anti-marijuana zealots in Congress.

When DC residents originally passed Initiative 59 in 1998 with 69 percent support, legalizing the medical use of marijuana, Congress, led by Republican Rep. Bob Barr from Georgia, at the time a leading anti-marijuana crusader, quickly passed a budget amendment banning the District from spending any money to implement the measure. That ban was repeatedly renewed with each new budget and stayed in effect for a decade, until 2009. Following the lifting of the ban, the City Council passed legislation licensing medical dispensaries, three of which currently operate in the District.

Similarly, when Initiative 71 was approved by 70 percent of the voters in 2014, legalizing marijuana for all adults in the District, Republican Rep. Andy Harris, an anti-drug warrior from rural Maryland, led a successful effort, supported by top congressional Republicans, to add a rider to the DC appropriations bill banning the use of any money to implement legalization, a ban that remains in effect until October 1, 2015.

Harris had initially claimed his amendment blocked Initiative 71 from taking effect, and threatened to have the mayor arrested should she implement the new law. But the DC Attorney General held the initiative took effect despite the budget amendment (allowing the new law to take effect did not require the expenditure of any funds), although the amendment would preclude the City Council from moving forward to establish recreational dispensaries. The question now is whether the anti-marijuana coalition in Congress will have the votes to include the ban in the appropriations bill currently being considered. At least for now, it appears likely they will not.

The Budget Battle Ahead

When Obama sent his proposed 2016 budget to Congress earlier in the year, he did not include any ban on spending District funds to legalize marijuana (the ban against using federal funding was retained), taking the position that this is a matter for the District to decide, not the Congress.

And while the latest House Appropriations Committee budget did contain the ban, when the Senate Appropriations Committee recently completed their District appropriations bill, the ban was not included.

So the issue will be resolved in conference committee, where the real behind-the-scene horse-trading often occurs, and there is a fair chance the ban will not be included in the new budget.

If that occurs, you can expect the DC City Council to move expeditiously to establish a system to license commercial growers and retail recreational marijuana shops. There is near unanimous support for this step among the council, and from Mayor Muriel Bowser. And it is helpful that DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has been a public supporter of marijuana legalization, stating at a press conference that marijuana is no big deal, and that “alcohol is a much bigger problem.”

So whether Congress likes it or not, their members may soon be spending roughly half of their time living under full marijuana legalization, including retail stores. This is a development that can only be helpful to speed along changes in federal law.


This column originally was publishedUS_capitol on Marijuana.com.



18 thoughts

  1. If Joe Biden gets into the presidential race, we all need to make sure we do NOT vote for this prohibitionist!!! His mentality on the subject mirrors that of Nixon and there is no way he should be our president.

    President Biden would be a disaster for any of us that want to be able to partake of the herb without possibly ending up in a big overcrowded prison.

    Bernie Sanders is the man we should all be considering casting our vote for IMHO!!! 🙂

  2. Maybe if we got lucky one or two of those sour faced members of our nation’s government whom look like they must be sitting on hemorrhoids might catch a wiff of good smoke, get a contact high, have a nice day for once, and speak up for legalization.

  3. Bernie Sanders is a socialist. I have heard rumblings that he wants strict gun laws, we don’t need that fluff. I like what Trump has been rumbling on about like legalizing and taxing marijuana.

  4. @Judy – If DC does get recreational dispensaries, I’m sure that if Joe Biden was to become our next president it wouldn’t last long.

    Biden is a Nixon era prohibitionist. He would have most of America locked up if he were pulling the shots.

    I often wonder why Obama chose him as his Vice… Perhaps it is because of the old saying: “Keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer”. By making Joe the VP, he wouldn’t be able to do as much damage to cannabis consumers. Another possibility is that Obama thought it might help him to get elected by showing his bi-partisonship.

    The link below makes Biden’s anti-freedom ways clear. Among other things, he is with Chris Christie when it comes to the stupendously stupid idea that marijuana is a gateway drug… Good grief! It is just beyond stupid that using one substance would cause you to go onto another; like heroin or meth. Most of us know the truth, and the truth is that if you go onto a truly dangerous drug after trying marijuana first, it is because marijuana did not give you what you were after, or it is because your illegal dealer encouraged other drug use. Of course, if marijuana was legal and sold like alcohol, the sellers wouldn’t also be selling heroin, meth, or crack!

    The only possible way he would get my vote is if he does a 180 on this issue and I don’t expect that; and I wouldn’t trust him if he did.


  5. I’m against Biden because I read a preface or something for the CSA way back long ago. He’s had some deeply tragic family losses, but that’s not the fault of cannabis, and I don’t want to minimize his losses.

    Has he “evolved” or otherwise changed his stance to pro-legalization? If he’s the boss he gets to decide to overrule any progress made under Barry O’s administration.

    Anyway, I’m thinking somehow Chaffetz and some other prohibitionist Republicans are going to keep giving DC a screwing. Maybe somebody could pull them and their staffers aside and get them to let legalization happen, you know, to let the will of the governed become implemented law.

    Was the security on Hillary’s servers better than the government’s? I mean, she didn’t get hacked, and the feds did get hacked. Hell, her Republican opponents can’t get anything on her so far, anyway, so the country’s enemies couldn’t have either, or? She gives me the impression that if she becomes president she’ll go to war to achieve to get back at the terrorist organizations over there and try to make amends with her domestic political opponents. Bill will be her handler, just like Biden, as the more experienced DC politician and Cheney for W acts as handler for the president.

    In any case, the sooner it’s legal in DC the better.

    We need cannabis banking. Maybe a West Coast office of the Federal Reserve will permit a master account for cannabis banking once Oregon and Alaska, definitely if California legalizes. The country has more pressing issues to spend its money on. I just can’t see enforcing cannabis prohibition just because the people who are charged with changing international policy and international law and international treaties (Vienna) are just too damn lazy to get with the times. It’s not like they don’t know states and entire countries have legalized cannabis. What the hell are they waiting for? A big bribe? They shouldn’t have to be bribed, and it’s a shame suspect them of holding out for one. But, that came up in FIFA, so why not international drugs policy?

    Legalize it now, please!

  6. Actually Biden said he supports Obama’s policy, I don’t think he would move to block legalization at this point.

  7. “Biden is a Nixon era prohibitionist. He would have most of America locked up if he were pulling the shots.”

    Yeah, except he’s not. He left the Republican Party specifically because Nixon got to go for the Whitehouse and he hated Nixon’s racism. But why the hell does this man turn around and is willing to be a tool for this racist policy. Biden is a freaking Uncle Tom. He says the right things, but does the wrong things. He has personally contributed to turning the US into a shithole for thousands of its citizens even though he does believe in “equality”. What a freaking moron.

  8. Thank you Keith for that excellent background leading up to DC legalization.

    It’s monumental. (That was meant to be a joke, but legalization in Our nation’s capitol actually IS monumental).

    The Take Away…
    DC received their authority to self govern like a real Democratic population under Congress by the home rule act only 43 years ago! And that’s the same year the DEA was formed!! And their only representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, still has no valid vote in Congress!!!

    And as for “6 million people in the metropolitan area?” You forgot about half of the United States driving from Florida to New England. That’s… A few more million. Actually that’s a traffic jam; People fly in and use the subway!!!!! There are some hotels in Silver Spring Maryland on the red line. All you New Yorkers are better off risking Amtrak than waiting for Cuomo, and the same for all of you in Jersey waiting for Christie. (Hey, but it’s still a four hour commute with traffic!)

    By far your best quote Keith was about “personal experience.” The reality of Congress and the Federal government getting legally high has such a hilarious overtone of irony mixed with tragic hypocrisy that historians will be laughing forever on how marijuana prohibition in the U.S. finally came to an end…

  9. This really jumped out at me:

    “…And it is helpful that DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has been a public supporter of marijuana legalization, stating at a press conference that marijuana is no big deal, and that “alcohol is a much bigger problem.”

    Whenever I watch one of those ‘Cops’ marathons, I come to the same conclusion, ‘alcohol is a much bigger problem.’

  10. Bernie Sanders may be “marijuana friendly” but he openly admits he’s a socialist and his views on almost everything else are just awful.

    Rand Paul is “marijuana friendly” and I think a lot of people would be pleasantly surprised by his message if they stopped using cable news slant to form their opinion on him and actually did their own research about what he stands for.

  11. @John Smith

    Rand Paul is, and God Bless him for all the bipartisan work he’s done on reducing mandatory minimums, a Libertarian. By definition that places him against income tax and public education, the cornerstones of successful marijuana policy by using fairly taxed marijuana revenue on… Public Education! …So that we never have to suffer the socioeconomic disproportionate violence of prohibition ever again.

    Look, if Hillary picks Julian Castro as her running mate, she’s GOT the presidency. It’s our CONGRESSMAN whose seats are up for election, along with California legalizing, that will finally turn the tides on prohibition.

  12. The saga of otherwise sophisticated humans living in cities gets old and uncomfortable now that Prohibition is getting attention in the video and printed Press, but I think the earth is really a mechanical system with no actual greed and ambition. We feel a sad story occurring sometimes but it should end soon, I’d say.

  13. Looks as if Barry was setting up a Clinton-Castro ticket when he patched it up with those OTHER Castro brothers. Whatever Cubans have Got (incl. cheap Medical) maybe we need it too.

    For biological reasons I favor continuing the streak of left-handers in White House and the one available appears to be Leftertarian Rand Paul of KY industrial hemp fame. But Hillary has earned a pass because of staying married to a lefty 40 years despite two notorious mistakes, First and Worst being not to INHALE when he had the chance.

  14. If it becomes legal in DC will we have congressmen and senators smoking a jay between sessions I dearly hope so.They might even see eye to eye on some issues and do some beneficial work for the good of the country.I’m sure in the past more than just the bottle was shared between both isles.

  15. The comment about Rand Paul was spot on, now what I might propose in Jesse Ventura and Rand Paul to run together. Now that would shake this two party nonsense up. Maybe then something will get done with all the real problems with America. Like jobs, incarceration, misbegotton wars, trade deals for big pharma and corporations, infrastructure and last but not so ever least the 1% ers/whatabes. Lets elect someone that wants to solve problems and do whats right for the people instead of the governing parties.

  16. @wonded,
    I’m sure they already are. It’s the citizens of D.C. who have been fighting for the right to vote and govern their own city like free Americans. Check out the hilarious new segment from John Oliver on DC Statehood and marijuana. “Give them weed!”

  17. Not only do we have to worry about those Conservatives who think they know what is best for the citizens of D.C., we have to worry about the leadership of the Demarcates too. Biden, Obama, Dianne Feinstein and all those other prohibitionists who think they know what is best for the people….

    Alcohol, Tobacco, and Prescription Drugs..

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