Votes on pot legalization have yet to be tallied, but the D.C. Council is already talking about "Rookie Cookies."
Five days before Washingtonians head to the polls, the council's Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and Committee on Finance and Revenue held a joint public hearing to explore how the District of Columbia would tax and regulate its marijuana industry. Officials have indicated they intend to send the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana to Congress without delay for its mandatory 60-day review period, and they fully expect it to take effect next April.
"Rookie Cookies," and other marijuana edibles are one of the products they will need to learn to regulate, according to Cathy Jolley, who came from Nashville to talk about her experience working with state and national players on behalf of Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting and Compliance. She said a strong regulatory model has been "key" to keeping the federal government out of Colorado's marijuana market.
But the District's unique relationship with Congress might make this legalization push a little more complex.
The last time D.C. put a major marijuana initiative on the ballot was November 1998. Republicans in Congress, led by Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, used an appropriations rider to block them from counting votes for 10 months. It took a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union to reveal that 69 percent supported the initiative, then nearly another decade to lift the Barr amendment, so the city could implement its drug policy.
Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris plans to try to stop legalization using the House appropriations process, his office told CQ Roll Call in August when the measure was approved for the ballot. A handful of the more than 50 witnesses who came to the John A. Wilson building on Thursday indicated they hoped Congress would intervene.
"We'll cross that hurdle when we get to that, but right now the next step is when residents of the District of Columbia head to the polls on Tuesday," D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange, said in response to one of the critics.
Lawmakers looked at everything from the land needed to cultivate enough pot to meet demand — about 0.01 percent of the District's turf — to how to spend money raised from the proposed 15 percent tax on recreational pot sales.
Financial officials estimate the market for marijuana and related products could be $130 million annually, including sales of already legal medical marijuana. Proponents, including Councilmember David Grosso, say the measure is "not about the money," though the more than 50 witnesses who testified spent plenty of time talking about sales and taxation.
"Be careful of setting the rate too high certainly, at least initially," said Joseph Henchman of the Tax Foundation.
With the council looking at pumping revenues into youth courts, or kicking it back to the alcohol regulators that would potentially oversee sales, Henchman warned that earmarks can be a problem. In Washington, the state picked a 25 percent tax rate at the producer, processor and retail stages, which Henchman said was "too high" and fueled the black market.
"The goal here is to get rid of the underground market," said Grosso, who introduced the bill in September 2013, when the city was crafting its decriminalization law. He says he would be open to taxing pot sales at 10 percent like alcohol, with a 15 percent excise tax. "If [the] purpose of this legislation is to stop putting people in jail, then we can't have the black market exist."
Social justice issues helped motivate the council to take its first step towards altering drug laws. In July, despite some opposition from Congress, the council voted to make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil violation subject to a $25 fine. Grosso emphasized that legalization is about criminal justice, not a "windfall" of profits.
Other issues include drug testing as part of job pre-screenings, an issue that Orange wants to tackle, and residency requirements for those who want to to be licensed to grow or sell. Under the initial proposal, a potential seller must be a D.C. resident for at least six months before applying to receive a retail license. Some D.C. residents hoping to cash in on the nascent industry want that extended to 24 months.
Grosso said the bill is still evolving, but he hopes to "get it to the right place" by Jan. 1.
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