As a means of sending her kid to college, it began with brownies. In 2017, Diana Alvarez, the owner of the Columbia Heights smoke store Lit City, put out a little basket of pot brownies. This was just a few years after D.C. voters had overwhelmingly approved the legalization of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. A small sign next to it asked for a $10 payment in exchange for the homemade marijuana edibles, with the proceeds going toward her son’s college tuition.
Alvarez’s “Ant’s College Fund” brownies were the first product of her foray into the city’s burgeoning “gifting” market, a collection of shops in Washington, D.C., that take advantage of a legal loophole that permits them to give away free cannabis samples to customers who buy other goods from them, such as clothing, art, or even motivational speeches.
However, Congress, which has jurisdiction over D.C., quickly adopted a budget rider that forbade the city from engaging in commercial Marijuana activity shortly after voters legalized the drug in 2014. So, for years, Alvarez’s company and dozens of other gifting shops have served as the de facto recreational market in the nation’s capital, operating in a legal gray area with little recognition, or regulation, from the government.
These stores are sometimes referred to as I-71 compliant, after the ballot initiative that legalized cannabis. The District of Columbia Council only last week authorized a bill to change that system by allowing dispensary gift shops to apply for medical marijuana licenses and thereby increase the size of the legal market.
Though the mayor’s signature and Congressional approval are still required for the bill to become law, its passage would significantly alter the dynamics of the District of Columbia’s marijuana industry. According to Terrence White, the chairman of the i-71 Committee and proprietor of a gift shop, “it’s going to allow the District to be a lot healthier on the cannabis side.” “It’ll let us do it right,” I said.
Local officials have been working on this bill for a long time to protect the city’s existing medical marijuana businesses and to address the proliferation of gift stores that serve the industry. Owners of gift shops have formed and led trade groups like the i-71 Committee and the Generational Equity Movement to lobby for inclusion in the regulated market.
While many in the District of Columbia cannabis community applauded the council’s vote, they remained wary of how the change would actually play out. ‘My worries are more political than anything else,’ Alvarez added. Throughout the years, it has changed. It used to be the prospect of a raid, but now it’s more about what’s to come with these rules.
The law makes permanent the emergency legislation passed in June allowing adults to self-certify their eligibility for Medical Marijuana. The brief application is restricted to people above the age of 21 and requires a photo, confirmation of residency, and identity. The number of registered medical patients increased to almost 25,000 by the end of November, up from just over 14,000 in May, proving the efficacy of the emergency legislation.
Seven medicinal dispensaries and eight licensed growers are all that exist in the District of Columbia at the moment. The bill also expands access to the city’s medical marijuana market by removing the cap on the number of medical dispensaries and cultivation centers and establishing an application period for gifting shops in the city to move into the medical market prior to issuing fines against those that do not comply.
The District of Columbia cannot establish a recreational marijuana market, therefore all of these maneuvers are a result of the fact that Congress has forbidden it to do so. D.C. officials had hoped that the “Harris rider,” so-called in honor of the bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Andy Harris of Maryland, would be repealed once the Democrats took control of Congress in 2020.
Nonetheless, the amendment has persisted, most recently appearing in the $1.7 trillion budget measure that was just approved last week. When it became clear that the rider would be here to stay, policymakers in Washington, DC, had to come up with a new strategy for market growth and regulation. According to Meredith Kinner, an attorney for the cannabis sector in the District of Columbia, “[Lawmakers] actually are applauding this as kind of the only avenue to evade the rider.”
That’s like saying, “We have a market for adult entertainment that isn’t really an adult market.” The legislation authorized by the council was a dramatic departure from past efforts, led by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), to shut down the gifting business totally, much to the astonishment and delight of gift shop owners. In late January 2021, Mendelson introduced emergency legislation that would have authorized the city to impose severe civil fines on gift stores.
However, the council narrowly rejected the proposal in April after Mendelson brought it up again, this time citing worries about diverting business away from the city’s registered medical businesses. The District of Columbia Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration said in early August that it will check the gift shops for health code, tax, and licensing breaches; however, it never really began doing so.
Mendelson and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who had been working with gift shop advocacy groups and expressing market equality concerns at the council’s Dec. 6 meeting, worked out the current version of the measure after extensive compromise and negotiation. The measure was revised to make it easier to obtain a cultivation center license, to offer gift shops more time to apply for a medical license and to delay the start of enforcement for a longer length of time.
Half of the licenses are reserved by the law for social equity applicants, who are broadly defined as low-income District of Columbia residents who have either served time in jail or are connected to someone who has spent time in prison for a cannabis or drug-related felony. You have no idea how unreal this is. A year ago, they were attempting to shut us down, said Mackenzie Mann, project manager for the Generational Equity Movement.
According to Mann, the amendments were a win for minorities and those with fewer resources because they permit existing operators 90 days to submit an application and postpone enforcement of giving shops until 315 days after the measure goes into effect. “They’re looking for rules to follow. “People at gift shops just want to have some space to breathe,” Mann added.
The fact that these young Black businesspeople are being acknowledged for their innovation is the most thrilling thing. White of the i-71 Committee was attracted to the cannabis industry in part because of the promise of establishing a more just market. At the end of October, he opened Monko, a high-end store in the Mount Vernon Triangle area.
The store’s design is minimalist, with crisp lines, bright fluorescent lighting, and marble worktops. His advocacy for a more inclusive environment focused on those most negatively impacted by the war on drugs, including people of color and formerly incarcerated individuals, and he stated he would not rest until he proved to lawmakers that gift shops were legitimate enterprises.
Store openings and financial gain were only part of the story. Yes, it’s cool, but why are we involved if we don’t plan on improving the environment or the culture over the long haul? “White,” said. Medical dispensary operators are likewise optimistic about the prospect of market shifts because their businesses have suffered from competition from gift shops.
Owner of Cannabliss, one of Washington’s seven medical dispensaries, Norbert Pickett is optimistic about the new law since it will allow him to bring in new competitors and grow his business. “It expands patient access to cannabis that has been well researched and vetted,” he explained. It brings together the black market and the licit market.
That’s a triumph in my books. When Alvarez was given the chance to be honored formally by the city, she jumped at the chance. A legal business that I’ve started is what I did. My company is legitimate and we have the proper documentation. I am a taxpaying citizen. I try to do things the right way,” the lifelong Washingtonian stated. It was this year that her son completed his undergraduate degree.