News & Politics

How Will Joe Biden’s New Marijuana Policies Impact DC?

"There are a lot of Washingtonians who are not going to receive relief from this, despite the intent."

Queen Adesuyi protesting at a rally to decriminalize drugs in front of Freedom Plaza in 2021. Photo courtesy of Queen Adesuyi.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon all federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana and pushed for governors to do the same for state offenses. Biden also requested US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland review whether the drug should still be classified as a Schedule I substance.

Biden’s move was met with cheers from from DC officials and pro-marijuana advocates, which isn’t a big surprise given nearly 65 percent of voters approved the passage a of 2014 referendum that legalized the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adult recreational use. But Queen Adesuyi, a senior policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, and other pro-marijuana advocates have continued to lobby for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the city for years. Their main obstacle has been a rider that Maryland representative Andy Harris proposed to an appropriations bill in 2014 that prevents DC from regulating a legal market. If marijuana is removed from the Schedule I classification, Adesuyi says it would be a huge step towards the legalization of recreational marijuana.

We spoke to her about how Biden’s policy would impact the Harris rider and recreational marijuana legalization efforts in the District.

What do you predict will happen regarding the Harris Rider?

Any movement of marijuana away from Schedule I would essentially allow DC to regulate the marijuana plant, but there is a complication because the rider does have additional language beyond the Schedule I part. It also says that DC can’t decriminalize, regulate, or reduce criminal penalties for any THC derivative. Let’s say marijuana is even moved to Schedule II. It’s very likely there will be certain products that may be limited. That limitation has not been worked out, because we haven’t gotten here before.

Would Republicans simply be able to pass another rider to overturn Biden’s policy?

In theory, Republicans can reintroduce a rider to block this, but politically, it wouldn’t make sense. Frankly, it’s not apparent that they even truly care about this rider. It’s only really because of the inability to lift the rider due to how wonky the appropriation process has been, but politically, there isn’t an active attempt to try to block DC from regulating marijuana on the Republican side. For example, Andy Harris, who was really the champion for this rider, hasn’t actually formally introduced the rider during the budget process for the last three years. It’s been maintained in our budget because the language has lived on in the Senate version of the appropriations bill.

How does DC’s non-statehood status play into the question of federal marijuana policy?

DC’s inability to regulate marijuana after the majority of Washingtonians voted for this years ago is a testament to how important statehood is in respecting the autonomy of Washingtonians. If DC was a state in 2014, none of this would even be a conversation because we would have had a legal marketplace for years now in the same way that every other state that’s been able to pass legalization has been able to pull together. It’s because DC isn’t a state that the appropriations cycle every year allows for appropriators that do not represent Washingtonians to pass amendments that have serious implications for us.

What would Biden’s proposed policy mean for people who are currently incarcerated in DC for marijuana offenses?

Since we’ve decriminalized marijuana here, we’ve seen possession charges dropped dramatically, but what people in Washington DC are really facing are possession with intent to distribute charges. Unfortunately, folks who are impacted by possession with intent to distribute will not qualify for the pardoning that is being offered in Biden’s announcement. The scope of the announcement is only around simple possession. With legalization happening years ago, people are largely not charged with simple possession of marijuana anymore. It wouldn’t count for folks who were impacted by it prior to legalization. But there’s been a huge uptick in possession with intent to distribute charges in lieu of possession, so there are a lot of Washingtonians who are not going to receive relief from this, despite the intent. Locally elected officials and the DC Council have been seeking to actually incorporate expungement and criminal legal reform when it comes to marijuana offenses in their efforts to regulate, and you can see that in the proposed legislation that’s been sitting in the DC Council. It’s important that Biden has also included the recommendation that he would want states to offer pardoning around records, so DC Council is given permission to move on regulation that would include expungement for residents.

What does this mean for legislation related to marijuana sales in DC? 

The biggest implication is that the DC Council would not have to fear federal interference in moving along our regulation bill that’s in council, so we can actually have the conversation about what regulation should look like here and how do we promote equity here. The DC Council would actually be able to pass it and have the mayor sign it into law. The biggest hurdle would be figuring out what products are limited based on that separate THC derivative language, so that’s something that would be worked out in the regulation process. 

How would this affect business owners, both medical dispensaries and in the gray market?

Medical cannabis dispensary owners would definitely benefit, especially because it seems they’re likely to receive a special preference, in terms of the legal market. That seems to be of interest to elected officials to make sure that the folks who have been holding down the medical cannabis market have a chance at entering the legal cannabis for adult use market. For folks in the gray market, technically they are business owners, but not cannabis business owners legally. It’s not legal if you don’t own a medical cannabis dispensary, so other shops are technically not dispensaries. The gray market would now be able to continue the conversation with elected officials about regulation and ensuring that they have a seat at the table when regulation comes down, but those conversations can’t be signed into law if marijuana is still a Schedule I substance and the rider is still on the books. 

Do you think Mayor Bowser and the DC Council would actually legalize the sale of recreational marijuana?

It’s apparent to me that the DC Council and the mayor are both interested in actually regulating cannabis for adult use. They would be remiss not to because there’s such a strong desire for it from the community. I see, one, federal interference no longer being excused on not moving marijuana regulation, and two, I see them actually wanting the opportunity to regulate because the gray market is really complicated. Over the last year, they’ve been actively trying to shut down the gray market. The best way to address the gray market is to actually be able to pass regulation, so I think they have a vested interest in figuring this out so we can get away from this really awkward gray area when it comes to legal access to cannabis in the District.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Damare Baker
Research Editor

Before becoming Research Editor, Damare Baker was an Editorial Fellow and Assistant Editor for Washingtonian. She has previously written for Voice of America and The Hill. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied international relations, Korean, and journalism.