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D.C. Council to consider bill that targets marijuana ‘gifting’ stores

Cannabis plants grow at District Growers in D.C. in 2019. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
6 min

The D.C. Council will consider allowing anyone age 21 or older to obtain medical marijuana, with or without a doctor’s prescription.

The proposal, which the council is set to vote on Tuesday, is part of an effort by lawmakers to prop up medical marijuana businesses and tamp down on so-called “gifting” businesses, in which entrepreneurs get around the congressional prohibition on selling recreational marijuana in D.C. by giving a free “gift” of the drug with a purchase of some other item like a T-shirt or a poster.

The bill includes several measures meant to put the “gifting” storefronts out of business, including civil penalties to shut down the stores and penalize the landlords that host them.

The city’s regulated and taxed medical marijuana dispensaries have seen “substantial erosion of their business to the illegal market” as “gifting” storefronts have flourished, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said. He said his staff counted nearly 40 such businesses in the District. He argued that the District should prefer legal businesses since not only does the city profit from license fees and tax revenue, but “there’s greater assurance of quality. Consumers know they have a safe product.”

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The shop owners and employees fear for their future. At No Kids Allowed — a shop selling apparel and other trinkets alongside marijuana gifts near Eastern Market — employees told every customer who came through the door this weekend about the legislation that could put them out of business.

The deal of the week: Call your council member and urge them to vote no on the bill and get a free joint.

One young man looked down at a script the shop had prepared to help customers call their council members, dialed Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), and implored in a voice mail, “Keep them open, man.” He left the store with the free prerolled joint.

Andrew Belt, 25, sat down to dial two council members. “Whatever concern they have about the stores is misplaced,” he said. “They are providing a service, not endangering the community.”

While the bill does not create any new criminal penalties for operators of marijuana businesses, it does create new civil violations for any business other than a registered medical marijuana dispensary that keeps more than two ounces of the drug on its premises or offers customers marijuana as part of a retail sale.

The bill would allow the mayor to shut down such businesses for 96 hours, which could be extended longer after an investigation. The city could impose a fine of up to $30,000 that the business must pay to reopen.

The shop’s landlord could also be fined up to $30,000, and twice as much for subsequent violations.

Adam Eidinger, a longtime cannabis activist and spokesperson for DC Marijuana Justice, which worked to legalize the drug in the city, said he worries the fines will largely hit people of color who work in unregulated marijuana businesses. “It’s drug war 2.0,” Eidinger said. “It’s the new drug war at the request of the industry.”

Mackenzie Mann, an activist in the organization Generational Equity Movement, which works with Black millennials in the cannabis industry, said the bill could put dozens of young people, many of them Black, out of a job. Speaking about Mendelson, she said, “There’s a lot more he could focus on rather than shutting down Black-owned businesses.”

District leaders have long hoped to establish a legal market for recreational marijuana, not just medical marijuana, but have been stymied by Congress. Marijuana use and possession is legal in the city, but Congress has blocked the District from allowing legal, regulated and taxed sales of the drug.

The gifting market that has sprung up in that void — sometimes referred to as “I-71 compliant,” after the 2014 ballot initiative 71 that made use and possession of the drug legal but did not deal with sales — could be reshaped by the bill.

As it stands, storefronts sell everything from artwork to pizza as a pretext for “gifting” marijuana.

Ryan Ha, founder of Dreamy DC — whose contractors charge a fee for a motivational speech, followed by a gift of marijuana — said the new legislation would advantage some businesses at the expense of many others. The gifting market encourages entrepreneurship and innovation, as Ha sees it. “You’re consolidating legalization to the seven dispensaries,” he said. “It’s not free, fair competition where you’re looking out for the customer.”

A D.C. company sells motivational speeches with a marijuana gift

From the viewpoint of the medical marijuana dispensaries, the current competition with unregulated businesses is unfair. “They simply engage in behaviors that we simply cannot engage in and we are not allowed to under certain regulations,” said Corey Barnette, who owns the Kinfolk dispensary in Northwest D.C. “We can’t put marijuana leaves in our windows. We can’t have flashing neon signs. There are regulations that prevent those things from happening.”

Across the country, 37 states have made marijuana legal for medical purposes, though many limit the drug to patients with specific medical conditions like cancer. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all but Washington state require patients to join a registry or obtain a patient card to purchase medical marijuana.

Getting a card requires a visit to a doctor, an application and a fee (though D.C. has temporarily waived the fee until later this month). D.C. government officials said they were not sure if D.C. would be the only jurisdiction to allow all adults to self-attest to their medical need for the drug rather than obtaining authorization from a physician, but almost all states do require a doctor’s visit.

The council already voted in February to allow senior citizens to self-attest to their need to use the drug for medical purposes.

Linda Greene, owner of the dispensary Anacostia Organics, said she has lost business as more gifting operations have opened shops. She said she would like dispensaries like hers to be treated like a CVS or Walgreens: “If you have aches, pains, sleeping issues, whatever, you can go into your local pharmacy — which is what we are.”

Barnette said the requirements to visit a doctor, apply for a patient card and pay a fee all make corner stores more appealing than dispensaries like his. “If that is the hurdle we’re putting between patients and access to medicine, it’s not hard to see why someone would just walk into an illegal operation and buy cannabis that way,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure that patients not only have access to cannabis but make sure they have safe access to cannabis, quality access to cannabis, and can really get the care and advice that they need.”