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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser unveils bill to legalize recreational marijuana sales

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced legislation Thursday to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana dispensaries in the nation’s capital, setting up a potential showdown with the federal government.

The District’s marijuana laws are in limbo. Residents may grow and possess small amounts of the drug under a 2014 voter-approved law. But they cannot legally purchase pot, and the city cannot tax sales because of a provision in the federal budget that prohibits the District from enacting or enforcing marijuana legalization laws.

Advocates have been hopeful that Congress would strip the anti-marijuana language — which originated with House Republicans — from the federal budget now that Democrats control the House. But it is unclear whether the next spending plan will pass before the 2020 elections.

The mayor wants to get moving on legalization before then.

“We want to be able to regulate, we want to be able to make sure we are collecting our fair share in taxes, we want to invest those taxes in ways that affect communities that have been disproportionately affected, and we want to train and hire D.C. residents,” Bowser said in an interview Wednesday with The Washington Post at a medical marijuana cultivation center.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who led the charge to stop the District from legalizing marijuana, suggested that the mayor’s office may be violating federal law by drafting legalization legislation while the budget restrictions are in effect.

“Mayor Bowser should respect the Constitution, which gives Congress absolute authority over the District of Columbia, and discontinue her efforts to legalize marijuana in violation of the law,” Harris said in a statement.

Bowser has accused Harris of abusing his congressional powers.

The mayor’s 69-page “Safe Cannabis Sales Act” would rename the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and task the agency with licensing and overseeing marijuana businesses.

Cannabis buds at District Growers in Washington on Wednesday. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The city’s eight medical marijuana cultivation centers also would be authorized to grow the drug for recreational purposes if Bowser’s bill passes. Regulators would be able to issue additional licenses six months after the law takes effect, but marijuana businesses would not be concentrated in specific neighborhoods, and they would have to have discreet signs.

“We are not going to be a marijuana destination,” Bowser said. “We will not be promoting it. We want D.C. residents to be able to have the choice to buy legally, and we also want to drive out the illegal market, which we know can promote violence in our communities.”

The minimum age to purchase marijuana would be 21. The bill would also crack down on attempts to avoid the existing restrictions on selling marijuana by offering it as a gift in exchange for purchasing clothing, artwork or other items.

Bowser wants to impose a 17 percent sales tax on marijuana products, with revenue funding enforcement of marijuana laws and affordable housing programs. Home delivery would be permitted.

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