The District of Columbia is one of only two jurisdictions (the other is Vermont) which have legalized possession of recreational marijuana but where sales remain illegal. Wait, what? That’s correct; in your nation’s capital, you can use recreational MJ, but you can’t buy or sell it.
Let’s start with a quick tutorial on how the District of Columbia is governed. Part city, part state and part colony, it is governed by an elected Mayor and an elected Council of the District of Columbia, but under the US Constitution, the United States Congress has ultimate jurisdiction over the District of Columbia. This jurisdiction allows Congress to pass laws affecting the District and to veto laws passed by the D.C. government. Its current government structure is set out in the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, D.C. Official Code § 1-201.01 et seq., passed by Congress in 1973.
Recreational marijuana use was legalized in 2014 by a ballot initiative known as Initiative 71 which became law as the Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Initiative of 2014 (the “Act”). D.C. Official Code § 48-904.01 Under the Act, it became legal to grow, possess and give away specified quantities of marijuana, but the Act said nothing about sales. In December, 2014, the United States Congress passed a law preventing the District from spending any funds to enact or enforce marijuana legalization laws. As a result, the District of Columbia government arguably cannot enact a law authorizing and regulating the sale of adult use, or recreational, marijuana.
The reality is that sales do take place, in some cases fairly openly. There are a number of business that will sell you a case of soft drinks for, say $50 (yes, that same case of soft drinks that you can buy for under $10 anywhere) and as a “gift” for your patronage, they will throw in a bag of weed. Same deal for that $50 tee shirt. Also “house party sales” take place every week. If you are “on the list” you are invited to someone’s house where you pay a relatively modest entrance fee and enter a mini-market where vendors have their weed products for sale.
Enter DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. Mayor Bowser has announced the Safe Cannabis Sales Act, B23-0280, a comprehensive bill that would provide for the legalization, regulation and taxation of recreational marijuana. For a more detailed description of the bill, see this Washington Post story. The Council Chairman has announced hearings on legalization of recreational marijuana sales. Representative Andy Harris R-Md., author of the federal law mentioned above, whose congressional district includes the eastern shore of Maryland, but not the District of Columbia, has voiced his opposition to the bill and any other legislation that would legalize recreational sales in the District of Columbia.
D.C. officials are not optimistic about the situation changing any time soon, so if you want to buy marijuana in the District, you may have to spring for fifty bucks to buy that five dollar case of water.
Note: For more info on DC government, see our blog post from March 2016: How a Bill Becomes a Law – DC Style