D.C. Council Approves Penalties for Unlicensed Weed Gifting Shops

The Washington, D.C. District Council has approved a measure to fine unlicensed weed shops.
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The Washington, D.C. District Council on Tuesday approved a measure that establishes new penalties for cannabis gifting shops. The bill, which could go into effect as soon as this week, is designed to regulate cannabis businesses that have refused attempts to bring them into the city’s medical marijuana program.

Recreational marijuana was legalized in the nation’s capital with the passage of Initiative 71, a 2014 ballot measure that made it legal to possess, use, cultivate and give away small amounts of marijuana. Since then, city leaders have attempted to legalize and regulate adult-use cannabis dispensaries but their efforts have been thwarted by Congress, which has the authority to modify or overturn bills passed by the district council.

The lack of regulation has led to dozens of so-called marijuana gifting shops opening in Washington, D.C. Under the gifting shop business model, customers buy inexpensive merchandise such as stickers at inflated prices and receive what is ostensibly a gift of cannabis in return.

In 2022, the district council passed a measure to expand the city’s medical marijuana program by lifting the cap on the number of cannabis dispensaries allowed to open in the city. The expansion also allowed the city’s weed gifting shops to apply to become licensed medical marijuana businesses.

The law was intended to give unlicensed businesses a path to legitimacy and thus rein in the city’s unregulated weed market. Under the law, weed gifting shops that do not apply for the program or are unable to meet its requirements are subject to civil enforcement measures. But more than a year after the 2022 law was passed, confusion over who has the authority and responsibility to issue sanctions under the legislation has meant the law has not been meaningfully enforced since it was passed.

Emergency Measure Approved By Council

To address the proliferation of weed gifting shops, District Councilmember Charles Allen introduced emergency legislation that tasks the city’s Alcohol Beverage and Cannabis Administration (ABCA) with regulating cannabis businesses. Under the bill, the ABCA has the authority to issue warnings, fines and cease-and-desist letters to unlicensed weed shops. 

The ABCA began accepting applications from unlicensed businesses to join the city’s medical marijuana program in November. According to Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, whose duties as the chair of the council’s business and economic development committee include oversight of the ABCA, 37 unlicensed pot shops have submitted applications so far.

The idea of issuing heavy fines to unlicensed cannabis businesses in Washington, D.C. can be controversial, even among the members of the district council. Some city leaders are worried that enforcement efforts will harm the mostly Black and Brown owners of local businesses who are filling the void left by Congress’ refusal to allow recreational marijuana shops. But with a way to enter the legal medical marijuana market now in effect, the council is more willing to tighten enforcement.

“This gap in the law, if not fixed, will render the onramp meaningless, allow unlicensed establishments that do not apply to keep on operating, and significantly harm the good actors that have applied,” Allen said during Tuesday’s legislative council meeting, according to a report from online news site The DCist.

The bill approved by the council on Tuesday also gives the ABCA the authority to issue fines to the owners of commercial properties that rent to unlicensed cannabis after being warned about the violation. 

The measure also gives the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions a role in the licensing process, including the ability to file protest notices with the ABCA about unlicensed shops in their jurisdictions applying for medical marijuana business licenses. The provision is similar to the regulation of the city’s bars, restaurants and liquor stores, which are also subject to such review by the advisory groups. Some Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and liquor license holders have expressed frustration to city leaders that the “gifting shops do not undergo public scrutiny,” according to the report from The DCist report.

The district council approved Allen’s emergency bill at its legislative meeting on Tuesday. The measure will become law and go into effect as soon as Democratic Mayor Muriel signs it.

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