“About four months” is theoretically the absolute fastest that stores could begin selling recreational marijuana in the District after the D.C. Council adopts new legislation, according to Rabbi Jeff Kahn. As the operator of Takoma Wellness Center, one of D.C.’s three functioning medical marijuana dispensaries, he is uniquely positioned to provide insight into this question.
The biggest mystery about Initiative 71, D.C.’s marijuana legalization initiative, is not whether voters will approve it, since it polls so well, but what will happen after they do. There are two big hurdles still in the way of adults being able to buy recreational marijuana in district. The first is Congress, which unfairly has power over all local legislation in D.C. and could abuse this to shut down any possible reform.
The second is how the D.C. Council will handle the issue of regulated marijuana. Due to limits placed on the D.C. ballot measure process, Initiative 71 would only legalize possession and limited home growing for adults. It was barred from containing tax and regulatory provisions like the 2012 ballot measures in Colorado and Washington State, or the legalization measures on the ballot this year in Alaska and Oregon.
Fortunately, the leading candidates for mayor, Democrat Muriel Bowser and Independent David Catania, both support legislation to tax and regulate marijuana. In addition, both see the District’s regulated medical marijuana system as a model for recreational marijuana. Catania even went so far as to say, “we actually have a pretty good regime in place for an easy transition to legalization through our medical marijuana initiative where we have dispensaries and cultivation centers.”
I spoke with several business leaders inside D.C.’s very small medical marijuana industry, and across the board they think it is a smart way forward. Rabbi Kahn told me, “The DC Medical Marijuana Program has become an unqualified success. It should serve as a model for all further DC marijuana legalization.” Michael Cuthriell, founder of the Metropolitan Wellness Center, also feels the medical marijuana system already has much of the basic regulatory foundation that is necessary, telling me, “The current infrastructure would make a transition to recreational marijuana much smoother.” One of the biggest problems, though, is scaling things up.
Like Colorado before it, D.C. has a well regulated medical marijuana system in place which it could rather easily expand into recreational marijuana. Yet unlike Colorado, the D.C. medical marijuana system is extremely small. There are only three dispensaries and three cultivation centers currently operating in the whole District which serve just 1,362 patients.
To put that in perspective, D.C. has a population of 646,449. If we assume only 5 percent of adults would choose to be regular customers, the local market would be roughly 25,000 people. That’s an 18-fold increase in the market — with sales restricted to only D.C. residents. If the marijuana stores were allowed serve any adults over 21, the market would be radically larger still. The D.C. metro area contains around 5.9 million people and as one of the top tourist destinations in the country it received some 19 million visitors last year.
Theoretically, if the council’s goal were to move as quickly as possible, Kahn pointed out they could pass emergency legislation right away to raise grow limits on the cultivation centers. That would make significantly more marijuana available in roughly four months, and at the same time the council could adopt permanent legislation letting dispensaries serve more people. That could create the additional supply and let dispensaries sell to the recreational market. Curthriell independently came to the same number, answering, “Around four months would be the absolute fastest possible, but it could take as long as 8-10 months.” He thinks even taking 10 months would be pretty good, given that it took Colorado just over a year to get their system up and running.
Corey Barnette from District Growers, one of the existing medical marijuana cultivation centers, had some slightly different expectations from his position. He believes if the council moved immediately to adopt legislation, “Those [currently operating] cultivators would be able to reach the demand of the marketplace if you gave them a six-to-nine month head start.”
That is, of course, looking at only the logistical limitations. One big hold up could be the council and the local regulators charged with writing the final rules. The council is going to need to not only balance the needs of the customers, the community and business leaders, but also trying to prevent Congress and/or federal agencies from stepping in to shut down the whole thing. After all, voters in the District first approved a medical marijuana initiative back in 1998, but Congress stepped in to prevent the District from actually adopting medical marijuana rules until 2010. Earlier this year, a federal appropriations bill containing a provision to block D.C. efforts to move forward with marijuana legalization actually passed in the House, but it died when the Senate didn’t take it up.
That said, Councilmember David Grosso (I) feels that if voters show overwhelming support for Initiative 71, the council will move quickly to respect the will of the electorate. They have already scheduled a joint committee hearing on his marijuana tax and regulate bill for October 30th in preparation of this, and he told me he thinks they could approve a bill as early as “the end of January or beginning of February.” If that happens and local regulators are able to fairly easily transition the medical marijuana market into the adult-use market, Grosso thinks recreational sales might be able to begin as soon as October or November of 2015. That is, if the whole process goes very smoothly.
Logistically, the absolute earliest that recreational marijuana could be on sale for adults in the nation’s capital is by spring. It’s more likely it will be roughly a year to a year and a half from now before we see the first legal recreational sales. But if Congress decides to abuse their power by interfering, they could block it for a decade or more.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy