DC’s Gray Marijuana Market May Soon Become Legit


He started with brownies to send his son to college.

It was 2017, just a few years after DC voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, when Diana Alvarez whipped up a small basket of pot brownies at Lit City, her Columbia Heights cigarette shop. Next door, a small sign requested a $10 donation for homemade marijuana edibles to help pay for her son’s tuition.

The “Ant’s College Fund” brownies, as Alvarez called them, launched their venture into the city’s growing “gift” market: a network of stores in DC that operates through a legal loophole that allows companies to give gifts to customers small amounts of cannabis with the purchase of another item, such as clothing, art, or motivational speeches.

Shortly after voters legalized marijuana in 2014, Congress, which oversees DC, introduced a budget rider that prevented the city from trading the drug. So for years, Alvarez and dozens of other gift shops, sometimes called i-71 compliant, after the number of the ballot initiative that legalized cannabis, have functioned as the de facto recreational marketplace in the nation’s capital, operating in a gray legal environment zone with little recognition or regulation by the government.

Last week, the DC Council passed legislation to revise that model by creating a path for gift shops to apply for medical marijuana licenses, expanding the regulated market. The bill still needs to be signed by the mayor and before Congress for review, but if enacted, it has the potential to transform the DC marijuana market for both businesses and consumers.

“It will allow the District to be much healthier when it comes to cannabis,” said Terrence White, Chairman of the i-71 Committee and member Gift shop owner. “It will allow us to do ‘right,’ as I call it.”

The legislation is the result of a long effort by local legislators to shore up the city’s already established medical marijuana businesses and address the growing number of gift shops. At the center of the effort have been trade groups such as the i-71 Committee and the Generational Equity Movement.organized and run by gift shop owners who have lobbied for entry into the regulated market.

And while many in the DC cannabis scene see the council’s vote as a significant step forward, they remain cautious about how the transformation will play out in practice.

“My concerns are more political than anything else,” Álvarez said. “It has changed over the years. At first, it was the fear of being broken into, and now it’s just about what happens next with these policies.”

The bill creates a permanent version of the emergency legislation beginning in June that allows adults to self-certify their eligibility for medical marijuana. The short application, available only to those 21 and older, requires a photo, ID, and proof of residency. It proved successful, adding more than 10,600 people since emergency legislation took effect in the summer, bringing the total list of medical patients to more than 25,000 at the end of November, compared with just over 14,000 in May.

But there are only seven medical dispensaries and eight licensed growers in DC. To meet the demand of new patients, the bill also increases access to the city’s medical marijuana market by removing the limit on the number of medical dispensaries and treatment centers. crop and create an application period. for gift shops in the city to enter the medical market before issuing fines for those who don’t.

All of these machinations stem from the fact that Congress prohibits DC from creating a recreational marijuana market. When Democrats took control of Congress in 2020, city leaders hoped that signal the end of the “Harris biker,” named for Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who introduced the legislation, and DC could move forward with creating a recreational marketplace. But the rider has remained, most recently included in the $1.7 trillion spending bill it happened last week.

After acknowledging that the cyclist would stay, DC lawmakers had to find another way to expand and regulate the market.

“[Lawmakers] we are really welcoming this as the only way to get around the addendum,” said Meredith Kinner, an attorney representing members of the DC cannabis industry. .”

To the surprise — and delight — of gift shop owners, the legislation passed by the council was a stark contrast to previous efforts, led by council chairman Phil Mendelson (D), to shut down the gift industry entirely. presents.

In late 2021, Mendelson proposed emergency legislation that would have allowed the city to impose stiff civil penalties on gift shops. Then again in April, Mendelson revisited the issue, citing concerns about moving business away from city-licensed medical stores, but the council narrowly shot down the legislation.

In early August, the DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration announced it would conduct inspections of gift shops for health code, tax and license violations, though the agency did not begin those inspections.

The latest version of the bill came after significant compromise and negotiations, primarily between Mendelson and Kenyan Council Member R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who worked with some of the gift shop advocacy groups and expressed concerns about equity in the market at the December 6 board meeting. Amendments to the bill included expanding the licensing process to allow more grow centers, changing the enforcement and compliance schedule to give gift shops more time to apply for a medical license, and allowing a longer period before execution began. The legislation also reserves 50 percent of licenses for social equity applicants, broadly defined as DC residents who are low-income, have served prison time, or are related to someone who was incarcerated for a crime-related crime. cannabis or drugs.

“It’s surreal. A year ago, they were trying to shut us down,” said Mackenzie Mann, project manager for the Generational Equity Movement.

Mann said the changes, which give existing operators 90 days to apply and delay application for gift shops until 315 days after the bill goes into effect, was a victory that will give people of color and those with fewer resources more time to present a strong application.

“They want to be regulated. They want to be able to breathe,” Mann said of the gift shops. “What’s most exciting is that these young black entrepreneurs are being recognized for their ingenuity and being recruited.”

The prospect of creating a more equitable cannabis market is part of what drew White from the i-71 Committee to the cannabis space. He opened his business, Monko, in late October, bringing a high-end store, with a simple, clean interior with crisp lines, bright fluorescent lighting and marble countertops, to Mount Vernon Triangle.

He said he prioritized showing lawmakers that gift shops were serious, professional businesses while pushing council to create a more equal space, especially for prison returnees and people of color, who historically have been hit hardest by war. against drugs.

“It wasn’t just about opening stores and making money. Fine, but if we’re not going to change the landscape or the culture to make it better, in the long run, why are we at it? said the white.

Medical dispensary owners, who have struggled to compete with the often more affordable and plentiful gift shops, are also excited about the prospect of change coming to the market. Norbert Pickett, owner of Cannabliss, one of the city’s seven medical dispensaries, located in northeast Washington, sees the legislation as an opportunity to bring more choice and expand the market.

“It gives patients more access to safe and proven cannabis,” he said. “It unifies the non-regulated market and the legal market. For me, that’s a win.”

And for Álvarez, she was excited for the opportunity to be officially recognized by the city.

“I opened a legitimate business. I have a business license. I pay taxes. I try to do things in the most legitimate way possible,” said the lifelong Washingtonian.

As for your son, he graduated from college this year.

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