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D.C. Council votes down bill targeting marijuana ‘gifting’ shops

The D.C. Council meets in March. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted against imposing harsh penalties meant to put marijuana “gifting” shops out of business, with opponents of the bill saying they wanted more hearings on the issue.

“Gifting” businesses have proliferated, with storefronts selling a product like a T-shirt or pencil that comes with a gift of marijuana — a practice that grew up in the District after recreational marijuana use and possession were legalized in 2014, while legal sales remain prohibited in the city by Congress.

The council’s consideration of the bill on Tuesday had alarmed many of the proprietors and patrons of those shops, which faced steep civil fines under the proposed legislation that they said could have put them out of business.

Since the council proposed the bill as emergency legislation, it would have required nine votes to pass, but only got eight, with five members voting against it.

'Keep them open, man': Gifting businesses lobbied against bill targeting them

“If we shut down the brick-and-mortar shops, it’s just going to go to a delivery service … which is going to make it even harder for us to solve the problems” associated with quasi-legal gifting businesses, said Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who opposed the bill.

Silverman and others who voted down against the bill said they agreed that the city needs to clarify its public policy on the marijuana industry, but wanted a full legislative process including hearings, rather than emergency legislation. The other members who opposed Tuesday’s proposal were Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8).

The city’s medical marijuana industry had pushed hard for the bill, saying they are losing customers to less-regulated corner stores.

“The medical side are struggling on the brink of existence, while the illegal side has only grown more rapidly,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who pushed for the legislation.

While some lawmakers expressed concerns about the impact of shutting down the gifting businesses, including whether people of color who own and work in the businesses would be disproportionately affected, others argued that their approach to getting around Congress’s ban on legal recreational sales should always have been seen as illegal.

“What these businesses are doing is illegal,” Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said. “Until we can regulate the nonmedical industry, we can’t allow people to come into the District and sell marijuana that hasn’t been tested without paying taxes to the District.”

Tuesday was also the second time this year that the council weighed the idea of allowing any resident age 21 or older to self-certify that they need medical marijuana, letting D.C. adults buy the drug at legal dispensaries without a doctor’s note. With the failure of the marijuana bill, that idea also failed to advance, but some lawmakers say they support eventually making D.C. the rare jurisdiction to allow medical marijuana usage without requiring a visit to a physician.

While the council refrained from further regulating the marijuana industry at the meeting, they did vote to allow more regulation of the hotel industry — specifically, approving a bill allowing the mayor to make rules about how often hotels must clean bedrooms and common spaces.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had requested the council consider the hotel bill, saying that some hotels had decreased the frequency that they cleaned rooms since the onset of the pandemic and that less frequent cleaning posed a risk to public health.

Some council members who supported the bill also discussed it in terms of labor, saying that more cleaning would mean more workers can be employed as hotel housekeepers.

The bill passed 11 to 2. Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) opposed what she said was overregulation of the hotels. “The industry is not yet recovered and many of our hotels are still working every day to get back to full operations. I think this bill is an overstep,” she said. And Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the bill was environmentally wrongheaded; hotels should not be required to do unnecessary laundry that wastes water and detergent, she said.

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