A key Republican lawmaker signaled on Tuesday that he’s interested in reassessing the federal ban that has blocked Washington, D.C. from legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational marijuana sales.
The comments came at a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing in response to testimony from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), who said that the congressional appropriations rider that has long prevented her city from implementing adult-use cannabis commerce “has a public safety impact.”
“The men and women of the police department are battling gray market cannabis sales daily that, if we had a tax and regulate system, we could implement a more safe system,” she said.
Chairman James Comer (R-KY) seemed sympathetic to the problem, saying at the end of the hearing that the marijuana issue that the mayor identified was one of the “things that caught my attention.”
“I didn’t know what the law was on that,” he said, referring to the rider that prohibits D.C. from using its local tax dollars to legalize and implement marijuana sales. “We’re researching that.”
Asked about any specific plans to address the D.C. cannabis issue, a spokesperson for Comer told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that the office did not have “anything further to share at this time.”
In any case, it was a notable exchange considering that Comer has generally limited his support for cannabis reform to hemp issues. The Kentucky congressman twice voted against bills to federally legalize marijuana and took a pair of contrasting votes on amendments to shield state legalization laws from federal interference.
The chairman’s commitment to researching the broader marijuana problem for D.C. also came after another GOP committee member launched into a tirade against marijuana.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) called cannabis “an addictive, dangerous product” and suggested that D.C. should increase enforcement against people who consume it.
“Your members, D.C. members, and your people who are in your police force and others should recognize that there are things being mixed in marijuana. There are hallucinogens,” he told Bowser and other local officials who appeared before the committee. “There are problems that we have, and you’re gonna keep having violent crime if you keep having the positions that you take on allowing marijuana to be openly smoked.”
Sessions, when he previously served as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, consistently blocked marijuana amendments from being considered on the House floor.
D.C. voters legalized marijuana possession, cultivation and gifting under a non-commercial model in 2014, but people are not allowed to consume in public spaces.
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While Comer said that he wasn’t previously aware of the congressional restrictions that are being imposed on the District when it comes to marijuana, the issue was separately raised in written testimony for a hearing in his panel in March.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told the committee at the time that “congressional interference” in local laws on issues like cannabis threatens the city’s ability to “address crime and public safety.”
Advocates have continued to push for an end to the federal blockade, but that effort ultimately failed for the 2023 Fiscal Year, with congressional lawmakers passing a final spending deal before the new session that keeps the rider, even though both the House and Senate had omitted it in their respective versions last year.
After President Joe Biden issued a proclamation in October pardoning Americans who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses, as well as people who’ve violated the law in D.C., U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) called on the president to go further by federally legalizing cannabis and letting the District establish a commercial cannabis market and grant clemency on its own.
The congresswoman said the ongoing local ban, which was maintained in Biden’s first three budget proposals, represents a “shocking violation of D.C. home rule by a Democratic administration.”
A coalition of local, state and national advocacy organizations recently asked the U.S. attorney general to formally adopt a policy of non-enforcement to allow the District to legalize marijuana sales even in light of the ongoing congressional ban.
A poll released in September found that D.C. voters strongly support marijuana legalization and oppose a crackdown on the cannabis “gifting” market that’s emerged in the absence of regulated sales.
Meanwhile, Congress did recently allow a D.C. law to go into effect that makes fundamental changes to the District’s medical marijuana program.
The measure includes reforms such as eliminating cannabis business licensing caps, providing tax relief to operators, further promoting social equity and creating new regulated business categories such as on-site consumption facilities and cannabis cooking classes.
The Medical Cannabis Amendment Act further codifies that adults can self-certify as medical marijuana patients—a policy that’s served as a partial workaround of the federal rider.
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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.