Is it legal to smoke weed in DC? It’s complicated

I recently moved to Washington, DC to join our East Coast practice group and was inundated with inquiries about the legal framework for recreational cannabis (i.e., marijuana and hemp) in the country’s capital. Given this overwhelming interest, I thought I might briefly summarize this issue for our readers.


In November 2014, DC residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of Initiative 71, an election that legalized the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana by residents 21 and older.

Photo by 12019 via Pixabay

However, a few weeks after the marijuana voting initiative was passed, Republicans in Congress attempted to repeal the law by including a tab in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015 that prohibited the district from using funds to make laws Enact taxation and regulation of marijuana. Under federal law, Congress reviews all laws passed by the council (think of this as the equivalent of the DC legislature) and any voter-approved referendum before it goes into effect. In addition, Congress retains authority over the district budget. Therefore, when Congress wishes to influence the affairs of the district, it generally does so through changes to unrelated laws such as expense accounts.

RELATED: Pop-Up Marijuana Markets thrive in the legal “gray area” of Washington DC

Even so, district officials, including the district attorney general and Mayor Muriel Bowser, said the congressional driver would not prevent the legalization of marijuana, which was enacted and upheld by the electoral committee before Congress passed the spending bill.

As a result, the district inherited a “gray market” where local businesses began to engage in the “gift economy,” which consists of selling items unrelated to marijuana at elevated prices and offering marijuana as a complementary gift to the transaction. This legally questionable business practice grew out of a provision in Initiative 71 that said it is legal for anyone 21 years of age or older to “transfer up to one ounce of marijuana to another person aged 21 without payment ( but not for sale). or older….”

Smuggling weed in from a legal state?  Don't get caught doing thisPhoto by Tunatura / Getty Images

So while the country’s capital had no more marijuana-related arrests (a particularly good thing given a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that found that DC had one of the highest arrest rates of blacks in any counties in the country 9 times more often than whites) the district has been faced with an unregulated, legally dubious market where the commercial sale of marijuana is illegal.

To address this lingering problem, the district legislature recently introduced the Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act of 2021, a comprehensive bill that, when passed in its current version, will provide a comprehensive regulatory framework for the production and sale of recreational items. Marijuana would create. but would also address social justice by repairing the damage caused by past law enforcement, investing in the communities hardest hit by the drug war, and providing equitable access to the new market. No action has been taken since the bill was introduced on March 1st.


The district has not yet enacted any hemp-related laws or regulations, which means it does not approve or regulate the production of hemp or hemp products, including the sale of cannabidiol (CBD). Hence, despite the notable presence of “CBD shops” across town, these products are not legal.

RELATED: Hemp CBD Legislation: Will Congress Increase Hemp Total THC Limit To 1%?

In summary, the commercial sale of recreational cannabis products is expressly prohibited in the district. This means that the vast majority of products sold and “gifted” in the city are unregulated and therefore may not be safe for human consumption. Additionally, while these activities appear to be largely tolerated, they put local businesses at risk of enforcement action by local and state agents. Something to think about before venturing into this market.

is an attorney with Harris Bricken. This article was originally published on the Canna Law Blog and is republished with permission.

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