A congresswoman says President Joe Biden’s marijuana pardons represent a promising step in the right direction, but she’s calling on the administration to follow up by allowing Washington, D.C. to establish a commercial cannabis market and grant clemency on its own.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said that she appreciates that the president issued pardons for people who’ve committed cannabis possession offenses in the District, along with the roughly 6,500 people who made the violation under federal law, but the clemency process needs to be reformed.
After Biden’s federal and DC marijuana pardons, which I applaud, I called on the Biden administration to end its support for the DC marijuana rider and to endorse giving DC clemency authority. #DCStatehood #HandsOffDC
— Eleanor #DCStatehood Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) October 6, 2022
As it stands, only the president is able to pardon people for D.C. violations, whereas most states have some independent process by which governors and pardon officials are able to provide that relief. So despite Biden’s call for governors to follow his lead, officials in D.C. have their hands statutorily tied.
Norton also pointed out that the president’s last two budget proposals maintained a GOP-sponsored rider that’s blocked D.C. from using local tax dollars to implement a regulated marijuana market, despite voters in the jurisdiction voting to legalize cannabis in 2014.
The congresswoman said that the policy represents a “shocking violation of D.C. home rule by a Democratic administration.”
Further, “D.C. should not have to rely on the president to exercise mercy and mitigate the harms of unjust policies,” she said. “D.C. should have the authority to grant clemency for D.C. crimes, like the states and territories have for crimes under their laws. The Biden administration should publicly endorse giving D.C. this authority.”
Under a broader home rule bill that Norton is sponsoring that passed out of the House Oversight Committee last month, the District would be given exclusive clemency authority for people who’ve committee local crimes.
Today, @OversightDems passed my DC Home Rule Expansion Act, which would be the biggest expansion of DC home rule since passage of the DC Home Rule Act in 1973.
— Eleanor #DCStatehood Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) September 20, 2022
Meanwhile, a poll released last month 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.
D.C. lawmakers also recently sent letters to House and Senate Appropriations Committees leadership, imploring them to remove the rider preventing local cannabis sales as part of Fiscal Year 2023 spending legislation.
“This is not simply an injustice, it is untenable. It is estimated that cannabis sales in the District exceed $600 million annually,” the lawmakers wrote. “A vast majority of these sales are unregulated because of the rider, complicating efforts to ensure consumer and public safety and jeopardizing the financial viability of legitimate medical cannabis businesses licensed to operate in the District.”
The House passed the relevant spending bill for FY 2023 in July, excluding the D.C. marijuana prohibition language. In the Senate, the legislation that’s currently on the table from the Democratic Appropriations Committee chairman also omits the rider.
Biden has faced consistent criticism from reform advocates over his last two budget proposals that have included the rider, despite the fact that he’s voiced support for D.C. statehood and for letting states set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
As Congress decides the fate of the rider, the D.C. Council has separately enacted what is effectively a workaround to the federal blockade, passing a bill in late June that allows people to self-certify themselves as patients under the District’s existing medical cannabis program, through with they can access dispensaries—without needing to get a recommendation from a doctor.
Bowser, Norton and other elected officials in the city have routinely criticized Congress for singling out the District and depriving it of the ability to do what a growing number of states have done without federal interference.
Norton told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview in July that she’s “fairly optimistic” that the rider will not be included in the final spending package. She added that the D.C. self-certification policy is an “effective workaround” until then.
The patient self-certification provision of the measure represents a significant expansion of another piece of legislation enacted into law this year that allows people 65 and older to self-certify for medical cannabis without a doctor’s recommendation.
Meanwhile, the mayor signed a bill in July that bans most workplaces from firing or otherwise punishing employees for marijuana use.
The reform is designed to build upon on a previous measure lawmakers approved to protect local government employees against workplace discrimination due to their use of medical cannabis.
While not directly related to the policy change, a D.C. administrative court recently reversed the termination of a government employee and medical cannabis patient who was fired after being suspected of intoxication on the job and subsequently tested positive for marijuana in late 2020. It also ordered the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) to reimburse the worker for all back pay and benefits.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
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