Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington, D.C. has announced that she intends to introduce legislation next year that would legalize the sale of recreational cannabis in the nation’s capital. Bowser, who was re-elected to her position on Tuesday, sees the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections as an opportunity to implement a pot legalization measure already passed by voters.
In 2014, District voters approved a ballot measure that legalized the possession and cultivation of small quantities of marijuana. But Republicans in the House of Representatives have used their power over the District’s budget to prevent the local government from regulating and taxing cannabis to allow recreational sales. Under provisions of what is known as a ‘budget rider,” the city is prohibited from spending money on such activities. Medical marijuana was legalized in D.C. in 1998, but with congressional interference, the first cannabis dispensary did not open until 2013. Underground pop-up markets often provide a grey market source of pot in the city.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who will chair the committee overseeing District matters, have said they will oppose the rider in budget negotiations next year. With Democrats soon to be in control of the House, Bowser said on Wednesday that the time for change has come.
“We have an untenable situation in the District,” Bowser said. “As long as we have the ability to possess marijuana, which is our law, we also need the ability to procure marijuana legally, which we don’t have now.”
The mayor added that she will soon be submitting a cannabis legalization measure for consideration.
“We will prepare a tax-and-regulate scheme to present to the council at the beginning of the next year,” said Bowser.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the nonvoting District representative in the House, said any restrictions on marijuana would have to come from the upper chamber of Congress.
“The Senate doesn’t seem to care much,” said Holmes. “Let’s see how much they much they care now.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has said the current situation with cannabis in Washington, D.C. is an “impossible paradox” and is in favor of regulated sales of recreational marijuana. But he believes that the current rider still in effect may prevent the council from taking any action on the matter.
“If mayor sent down the bill, the first thing I would have to do is talk to my lawyers about whether and how we can proceed,” said Mendelson. “Am I supportive of moving forward with regulating? Yes, I am. It’s a question of how soon.”
City Council member David Grosso has already introduced an ordinance to license retail cannabis shops. He believes that the city should move forward now despite the rider still in place.
“I believe we should act as if Congress isn’t there and suffer the consequences, whatever they might be,” Grosso said.
Grosso also said that the full legalization of pot is the only way to avoid the racial injustice fostered by prohibition.
“We’ve seen a lot of arrests and criminal charges brought against people in the city and there are huge disparities between white and black people in those numbers,” Grosso said. “To eliminate those we have to completely regulate marijuana.”
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