The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously passed an emergency bill that removes the longstanding requirement that anyone looking to get medical marijuana first get a doctor’s recommendation.
The bill, which was introduced by Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), instead allows residents over the age of 21 to “self-certify” they need marijuana for medicinal uses when they register for a patient card. The card allows them access to any of the city’s seven medical marijuana dispensaries. Earlier this year the council passed a similar bill allowing residents over the age of 65 to self-certify that they need medical marijuana.
Proponents of the bill say it aims to ease access to medical marijuana for potential patients, some of whom may face challenges in finding a doctor who will provide a recommendation for medical marijuana (there are 620 registered with the city to do so, out of thousands in D.C.) or may not have the time, insurance coverage, or money to manage a visit to a doctor.
But the measure also looks to help sustain the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries, which face growing competition from unregulated “gifting” shops and services — known as the “gray market.” D.C. officials say those illicit vendors can offer lower prices that undercut the legal and regulated dispensaries.
“Due to the lower barriers to access in the gray market, a significant number of medical marijuana patients have shifted from purchasing their medical marijuana from legal medical dispensaries to the illicit gray market, creating a significant risk to the long-term viability of the District’s legal medical marijuana industry,” reads a declaration from McDuffie and Cheh accompanying the emergency bill. “If this trend continues, it is possible that gray market sales could wipe out the District’s legal marijuana dispensaries. Given the… benefits that regulated and safe legal dispensaries provide to medical marijuana users in the District, it is vital that the industry survive until the District can stand up a regulated recreational market and transition toward full regulation of recreational marijuana products.”
“This self-certification is urgently needed for consumers and dispensaries alike,” said Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). “Expanding our patient base is a necessary first step to putting them on an equal playing field.”
The council took up the issue of self-certification for people over the age of 21 back in April, but it was wrapped into a broader bill that would have ramped up civil enforcement on gifting shops and services. Facing pushback from the gifting industry, lawmakers voted the bill down.
Speaking on Tuesday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he is still looking to pass legislation to crack down on the gifting shops, largely to buttress the medical marijuana dispensers he says will create the backbone of a legal recreational market if one is ever created. (Since 2015, Congress has blocked D.C. from legalizing sales of marijuana for recreational use.)
“It’s not an equal playing field and will never be as long as there are illegal cannabis gifting shops,” he said. “As long as there are these businesses, the legal industry won’t be there to step in [when legalization happens].”
In a statement, the I-71 Committee, which represents a number of gifting shops, said it supports expanding access to medical marijuana “without harming legacy cannabis operators in the process.”
The bill heads next to Mayor Muriel Bowser for her signature. In a letter to the council on Tuesday, Bowser said she supports the bill.