State of Cannabis: Washington D.C.

Cannabis LawyersThis is proving to be a big year for cannabis. As a result, we are ranking the fifty states from worst to best on how they treat cannabis and those who consume it. Each of our State of Cannabis posts will analyze one state and our final post will crown the best state for cannabis. As is always the case, but particularly so with this series, we welcome your comments. As a result of the overwhelming success of many cannabis initiatives this November, all the remaining states in this series have legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana.

With four states remaining — Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington — we deviate from our regular format of ranking the actual states and we instead turn to the District of Columbia. This post will examine the District’s cannabis laws and focus on how the federal government has made implementing those laws in D.C. so difficult.

Our state rankings are as follows: 5. Alaska; 6. Massachusetts;  7. Maine; 8. New Mexico; 9. Nevada; 10. Hawaii; 11. Maryland; 12. Connecticut; 13. Vermont; 14. Rhode Island; 15. Kentucky; 16. Pennsylvania; 17. Delaware; 18. Michigan; 19. New Hampshire; 20. Ohio; 21. New Jersey; 22. Illinois; 23. Minnesota; 24. New York; 25. Wisconsin; 26. Arizona; 27. West Virginia; 28. Indiana; 29. North Carolina; 30. Utah;  31. South Carolina; 32. Tennessee; 33. North Dakota; 34.Georgia; 35. Louisiana; 36. Mississippi; 37. Nebraska; 38. Missouri; 39. Florida; 40. Arkansas; 41. Montana; 42. Iowa; 43. Virginia; 44. Wyoming; 45. Texas;  46. Kansas;  47. Alabama;  48. Idaho; 49. Oklahoma;  50. South Dakota.

Washington D.C. 

Recreational Marijuana. On November 4, 2014, voters in Washington D.C. approved Initiative 71, allowing individuals 21 and older to legally possess, use, purchase, or transport up to two ounces of marijuana within the District. The initiative also permits individuals to legally possess, grow, and harvest up to six marijuana plants in their principal residence, with no more than three flowering plants at one time. However, the initiative did not directly address cannabis sales. Instead, Initiative 71 called for the city council to draft regulations for marijuana retail sales.

Those regulations were never drafted due to interference by the federal government. Congress possesses budgetary oversight for Washington D.C. and it has used that spending power to frustrate Initiative 71’s implementation. In December 2014,  U.S. Congressional members included a rider in the U.S. federal spending bill prohibiting the use of federal funds towards any efforts to implement Initiative 71. Despite this, D.C city officials and the mayor pledged to move forward with legalization. Eventually, members of Congress actually threatened D.C.’s mayor with criminal penalties for implementing legalization.

Amidst legal uncertainty, legalization in D.C. nonetheless went into effect in February 2015. The threats by Congressional members were somewhat effective though because the D.C. City Council has yet to create regulations necessary for a truly functioning legal recreational marketplace in our nation’s capital. In D.C., cannabis is legal to possess and cultivate, but not to buy or sell. The District’s recreational marijuana market has operated in this “gray area” since cannabis was legalized. With Republicans now controlling both our nation’s House and Senate, our cannabis lawyers do not see the Washington D.C.’s betwixt and between situation changing anytime soon.

Medical marijuana. Washington D.C.’s medical marijuana market is currently operational after years of delay. Voters legalized medical marijuana in 1998. But just as it did with Initiative 71, Congress stalled the process by limiting D.C.’s use of federal funds to get its medical cannabis program off the ground. Cannabis dispensaries did not start selling medical marijuana in D.C. legally until 2013. Washington D.C.’s Department of Health summarizes its medical cannabis program as follows:

All qualifying patients have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes when his or her primary physician has provided a written recommendation that bears his or her signature and license number. This recommendation must assert that the use of marijuana is medically necessary for the patient for the treatment of a qualifying medical condition or to mitigate the side effects of a qualifying medical treatment.

Unlike many states, D.C. does not have a list of qualifying conditions, meaning that doctors have the freedom to recommend cannabis for a wide range of medical conditions.

D.C. patients and recreational users are both limited to two ounces of cannabis. But unlike recreational users, cannabis patients may purchase cannabis at a dispensary. A 2013 Amendment to D.C.’s medical cannabis law prohibits more than five marijuana dispensaries from opening in the District. The mayor has authority to expand that number to eight. The D.C. City Council recently implemented new regulations requiring the city’s dispensaries to submit cannabis to labs for testing. These rules are intended to protect consumers from ingesting dangerous additives that can be found on cannabis.

Bottomline. For years, the federal government has taken a generally hands-off approach to the states legalizing both medical and recreational cannabis. So long as an individual state’s legalization regime complies with the dictates of the Cole Memo, the federal government typically stays away. This has not been the case in our Nation’s Capital, as federal lawmakers are simply more concerned with cannabis legalization in their own backyard. Though Washington D.C. now has a workable medical marijuana program, we see the battle over its recreational marijuana program getting only more heated as the Trump administration and a Republican Congress take over. If D.C. were a state, it would definitely rank within our top ten for cannabis, but that may change for the worse, and soon.