The District is the capital of the United States but if D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has her way, the city will also be known eventually as the best place in the country to buy and engage safely in commerce in marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes.
In 2014, District voters approved Initiative 71, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The initiative allows adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, the right to grow up to six plants and gift up to one ounce of weed to other adults 21 and older.
However, sales of the substance remain banned.
Voters approved medicinal marijuana in 1998 but the U.S. Congress blocked implementation until 2009. Medical marijuana became commercially available in the District in 2013.
Cannabis has become a big business nationally. In 2018, legal marijuana generated $10 billion and had 250,000 employees nationwide, according to statistics from the New Frontier Data firm.
In terms of marijuana, the D.C. region would be the second-largest market in the country with the greater Los Angeles area being number one, New Frontier data suggests.
Bowser, speaking at the “WeDC Future Forum: The Capital of Inclusion Innovation” at the Eaton Hotel in Northwest on Oct. 2, said legalizing marijuana mainly had to do with controlling the product legally.
“There are underground markets in the District and they are exploding,” Bowser said. “They are also creating violence in the community. We were incarcerating too many people for small amounts of marijuana and that was a drain on our city’s resources.
“A change needed to be made,” the mayor said. “We aren’t doing this for the money but to keep people from being locked up.”
John Kagia, a marijuana industry expert at the New Frontier Data firm, agreed with Bowser that the District has become a hot marijuana market.
“Washingtonians have a prodigious appetite for cannabis,” Kagia said. “It is estimated that 18 percent of all adults in the District use cannabis.”
He also agreed with the mayor’s social justice argument, pointing out a disparity.
“Black men make up 22 percent of D.C.’s population but are 80 percent of the arrests for marijuana violations,” he said. “This is even when law enforcement has de-prioritized marijuana arrests.”
Laurent Crenshaw works as the senior director for governmental affairs for EAZE, a medical cannabis company. Crenshaw suggested the Black male marijuana arrest rate would go down if social consumption lounges could be set up throughout the District.
In regards to entrepreneurship should recreational marijuana become commercialized, Crenshaw said minorities should be able to participate.
“In order to help marijuana entrepreneurs, particularly those who are Black or brown, we have to keep taxes low and have micro-loans available,” he said. However, he did note the barriers that marijuana entrepreneurs of color could face.
“Marijuana entrepreneurs don’t have access to capital through traditional banks because it is a federally banned substance,” Crenshaw said. “There is no assistance from the Small Business Administration on this. I am aware though of a bill that passed the House that would let banks loan to marijuana enterprises.”
Crenshaw said White males in the industry don’t have this problem because they can tap into alternative capital sources that minorities can’t.
Bowser has proposed a bill, the Safe Cannabis Act of 2019, to the D.C. Council that would essentially allow the sale of recreational marijuana in the city. When Initiative 71 passed, Congressional Republicans attached a rider to a D.C. appropriation bill that prohibited local funds from being used to implement it.
Bowser’s bill would correct that by allowing the city to set up the structure to commercialize recreation marijuana.
“The Safe Cannabis Act will provide safety and clarity and promote equity by ensuring that the benefits of this new system — from jobs to revenue — go to communities that have been disproportionately hurt by marijuana criminalization,” the mayor said.