Bowser Unveils Plan to Allow Recreational Cannabis Sales

Mayor Muriel Bowser is getting ready to clear up the legal haze around the sale of recreational marijuana in the District.

The Safe Cannabis Act of 2019, announced on Wednesday, would allow for the sale and taxation of recreational marijuana, if it passed. Bowser says it also provides clarity on the use of cannabis and cannabis products while promoting a more equitable market.

Bowser didn't detail how much tax revenue the measure could bring in if passed, but says the money would be spent on affordable housing. The law would also automatically seal, within one year, records of Washingtonians who have been convicted of most marijuana-related offenses.

"We have the opportunity to right wrongs that for decades have destroyed families here in D.C.," she said at a press conference introducing the legislation.

Since voters approved Initiative 71 in 2014, it has been legal for residents over the age of 21 to own personal marijuana plants, gift small amounts of marijuana and use it on private property the District. It remains illegal to sell.

Despite the ballot initiative, federal intervention had stopped the District from allowing — and profiting from — legal sales.

The introduction of the bill sets up a fight with the federal government, which can exercise oversight over D.C. laws. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland, added a rider to a budget bill that prohibited lawmakers from taking up the issue.

Still, it's an open secret that marijuana sales happen in the District: People can put in orders online or go to pop-up parties. Customers often are asked for a "donation" in exchange for their "gift" of weed.

Now that Democrats have taken over the House, Bowser says she's confident that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and allies will be able to abolish that rule. Bowser says she wants to be ready to implement a new regime as soon as possible — But she says Council does have the legal authority to start debating.

D.C. Council appears ready to talk pot: Chairman Phil Mendelson says that hearings will be held.

"There’s no question that we need to legalize and regulate sales. But citizens should not get their hopes up, yet, because Congress continues to prohibit us from legislating in this area. It’s a ridiculous situation — that citizens may possess small quantities of cannabis, but it’s illegal to buy it. Thanks Congress," Mendelson told News4.

Under the new law, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration would be charged with marijuana regulation and renamed Alcohol, Beverage and Cannabis Administration, Bowser said.

Hundreds of arrests have been made at pop-up pot parties around the District, the News4 I-Team found, but cases are often dropped. Not only are wasted police resources a pitfall of the current system — But there are dramatic racial disparities in who gets in legal trouble for violating marijuana laws.

In 2017, 75 percent of people arrested for marijuana consumption in the District were black, the Drug Policy Alliance says (It's not legal to smoke marijuana in public).

Bowser says she wants to confront that disparity when considering future legislation around cannabis — Even choosing a location meaningful and relevant to addressing the disparity: Thursday's announcement came at Anacostia Organics, the only dispensary east of the Anacostia river.

Bowser hopes to promote equity in the budding industry by requiring that 60 percent of dispensary owners and licensees are District residents. She also says the law requires those business hire at least 60 percent of the workforce from the District.

Critics say that legalization won't solve the disparity problem, because public consumption would still prohibited and that's when most young black men get stopped by police.

Police Chief Peter Newsham, who made an appearance at the press conference, said that the marijuana laws are in-step with alcohol laws.

Justin Strekal, the political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML, says that legalization will also help enforce rules that only residents over 21 can indulge.

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