DC Council votes against bill targeting marijuana gifting businesses

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted down a bill targeting the District’s growing marijuana "gifting" industry. 

The emergency legislation would have allowed the city’s agency that regulates liquor licenses to start cracking down on gifting businesses starting within the next few months.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who brought the emergency legislation for a vote, shut down several fallacies regarding the area's marijuana peddlers. 

"They’re D.C. owners: Not true. They all pay taxes: Well, that is absolutely not true. They are not paying taxes on illegal cannabis sales. They are 100% Black-owned: Not true. That they pay good wages: Who knows? They’re not regulated!" he said. 

READ MORE: Marijuana gifting businesses could be shut down in DC

Mendelson’s bill would’ve also made it easier for people to get their medical marijuana cards to encourage more people to purchase from legal dispensaries. 

An amendment from Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie would have allowed for more dispensaries to register in the city.  

Since 2014, D.C. has allowed the use of recreational marijuana, but Congress’ Harris Rider continues to ban sales.  

Gifting businesses found a way around this by selling an item such as a more expensive postcard that comes with a gift of weed. Mendelson said on Tuesday, this grey area has created an over $500-million-a-year industry in D.C. that cannot be regulated. And as a result, it's creating public safety issues and unfair competition for legal dispensaries.

Mendelson blamed Congress saying until they lift the Harris Rider on recreational marijuana sales in the District, D.C. "is in purgatory." 

The emergency legislation, according to Mendelson, was introduced to address some 40 illegal District gifting storefronts and a number of gifting delivery services that Mendelson said are sinking the District’s seven legal dispensary owners.

"Until we can regulate the nonmedical industry, we can’t allow people to come into the District to sell marijuana that’s not been tested," said Councilmember Charles Allen, who voted in favor of the bill.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman was among those who voted "no" telling the council, "This dramatically alters how cannabis will be bought and sold in the District of Columbia. As you said Mr. Chairman, an estimated $500 to $600 million businesses, and you know what? We’re legislating on the fly."

Councilmember Janeese Lewis George criticized the emergency bill’s ability to bypass an equity review.

"Choices to become a legal retailer is only available to about 1/4th of the gifting shops in operation. That’s not a real choice, and it’s Black and brown folks that will lose out," she said.

The D.C. NAACP also issued a statement against the emergency legislation, noting the owners and employees of color who could be negatively impacted.

"Lonny the Street Lawyer," who owns a gifting business on H St. NE, told FOX 5 there are other matters the council is not considering with this legislation.

"Whether you like it or not, it’s a reality. And not a small reality," he said. "We’re talking hundreds of gifting shops throughout the city. Every … spectrum, some are more sophisticated than others. Some take branding more seriously. Some just find a little hole in the wall. Nevertheless, we have thousands of people working for them. 

"A lot of Black and brown people. A lot of people who may have otherwise have limited opportunities. And landlords. You know, it’s not easy being a landlord. You’ve got to rent that space out. So thousands, or well – hundreds - are also going to suffer."

Multiple council committees have been working on marijuana legislation in case the Harris Rider is ever lifted.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser commented on the legislation before the measure was brought up for a vote:

"As currently drafted, this emergency extends measures previously passed by the Council and allows for a larger population of residents—those 21 years of age or older—to self-certify the existence of a qualifying medical condition until the end of this fiscal year, which we wholeheartedly support," she said. This bill would also provide the Mayor and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board with additional civil authority to close illegal marijuana businesses, issue fines, and take other necessary measures to address these businesses, which poses some resource concerns.  Given resources necessary to address these unlicensed operations, which contemplates ABRA, DCRA and MPD involvement, the enforcement agencies will need to determine how to prioritize outreach and enforcement. The Council should continue to level the playing field for licensed providers, keep pushing for an Adult Use and Tax and Regulate system, but be careful to advance unfunded mandates for our enforcement agencies during times of great change.  This could result in creating expectations in the community that we have no ability to fully achieve."

The council needed just one more "yes" vote to have passed the emergency legislation.