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D.C. Council allows adults over 21 easier access to medical marijuana

The D.C. Council. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the D.C. Council extended the city's foreclosure moratorium. The council voted to extend the deadline to apply for funds to stave off foreclosure, and to add protection to prevent foreclosures while that application is pending. The article has been corrected.

D.C. residents who are 21 and older will soon be able to self-certify their eligibility for medical marijuana under a proposal passed by the D.C. Council on Tuesday, which also approved measures allowing some minors to get certain vaccines without their parents’ consent and another bill to give residents at risk of foreclosure more time to access new funds.

The cannabis bill marks the latest attempt by lawmakers to support the city’s medical marijuana industry, which they say has lost business to more easily accessible marijuana “gifting” shops based in the District.

Unregulated gifting businesses, which give patrons cannabis so long as they purchase another item like a sticker or poster, grew in number after 2014, when recreational marijuana use and possession were legalized in the District, but not sales. Entrepreneurs say the gifting method offers a way around restrictions imposed by Congress that prevent D.C. from regulating its sale.

But D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and other lawmakers have criticized the District’s 40-plus marijuana gifting shops, arguing that these “gray market” businesses pull residents away from the city’s seven regulated medical marijuana dispensaries, which are subject to taxes. In April, the council narrowly struck down a bill that would have allowed D.C. to impose harsh civil fines on gifting shops while also allowing any adult resident to self-certify to obtain medical marijuana.

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

On Tuesday, the council unanimously passed an emergency bill that focused only on the self-certification aspect. Mendelson has argued that obtaining a practitioner’s recommendation for medical marijuana is cumbersome, creating delays for residents who need treatment — particularly those who are uninsured or lack financial resources, driving them toward gifting businesses instead.

“Permitting patients to self-certify will provide a critical stopgap measure to help legal marijuana dispensaries retain and even win back medical marijuana patients from the illicit gray market,” reads the bill, which was introduced by Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5).

“Savvy business owners have pushed the legal limits on the gifting industry,” McDuffie said ahead of the vote. “I’ve had medical dispensaries that have reached out to me and my staff and say that if we don’t pass this measure, it could put their businesses into jeopardy.”

In a statement, the i-71 Committee, which advocates for the city’s marijuana gifting businesses, said they were supportive of a bill, in part because it increases access to marijuana “without harming legacy cannabis operators in the process.” Earlier this year, the council passed a bill that allows residents 65 and older to self-certify for medical marijuana until Sept. 30; everyone who self-certifies will be enrolled in the city’s medical marijuana registry.

Mendelson has vowed to pursue stronger penalties against gifting shops.

The council on Tuesday also passed emergency legislation that allows medical providers to vaccinate minors after seeking permission from a parent or legal guardian.

The bill, introduced by Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), comes more than two years after the council approved a similar measure that allowed children as young as 11 to get vaccines without their parents’ knowledge — if a doctor determined that they are capable of informed consent. But a federal judge last year barred D.C. from enforcing that law after parents said the legislation violates religious liberty.

“We believe this bill addresses their concerns,” Gray said.

The latest attempt by Gray says providers can offer vaccines recommended by the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to children as long as there was a “reasonable” attempt to contact their parents or a guardian. The bill makes exceptions for children who are homeless, emancipated or separated from their parents.

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who opposed the original bill passed in 2020, also spoke out against the latest measure, saying a reasonable attempt to contact a child’s parent or guardian did not go far enough to ensure parents can have a say in the matter.

White was the only lawmaker to vote against the measure, which passed 12-1.

Judge bars D.C. from vaccinating children without parental consent

Lawmakers unanimously agreed on an emergency bill to extend the application deadline for the city’s Homeowner’s Assistance Fund (HAF), a pool of funding aimed to help those who have struggled with mortgage payments or other pandemic-related hardships, from Aug. 30 to Sept. 30.

While D.C. received $50 million to prevent foreclosures through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who introduced the measure with Mendelson, said the city launched the fund last week, one month behind schedule, meaning residents need more time to apply. The city’s pandemic-era foreclosure moratorium is set to expire Thursday.

The bill also protects homeowners from foreclosures after Sept. 30 if their HAF application is pending.

“We need to do more to keep residents housed,” she said in a tweet.

The council also took the first of two votes on a bill introduced by McDuffie last year that excludes driver’s licenses from D.C.’s “Clean Hands” certification, which denies licenses to residents and businesses that owe at least $100 to the city.

McDuffie has long argued the certification was inequitable, primarily hurting low-income D.C. residents who sometimes can’t renew their driver’s licenses because of outstanding debt from traffic tickets. His bill, which would go into effect starting fiscal year 2024, would allow residents to renew their driver’s licenses even if they carry debt. It also allows applicants to get a Clean Hands certification as long as they have less than $5,000 in debt.

But several lawmakers, including Cheh, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Christina Henderson (I-At Large), pushed back on McDuffie’s proposal, noting that it could simultaneously remove one way that the District penalizes reckless drivers at a time when traffic deaths are rising. Some of them expressed a desire to fine-tune the bill ahead of its second vote to strengthen the public safety aspect.

Still, the measure passed with 12 votes; Cheh voted “present.” All of these measures will go to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) desk for her signature.

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