Ever wonder why DC has so many unregulated dispensaries operating under the gifting loophole? That has everything to do with the notorious Harris Rider Bill, which is purposely blocking DC from having any lawful mechanism to distribute marijuana recreationally.
The Harris Rider bill can be found in the H.R.2617 - Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, located under Title VII “General Provisions - District Columbia” in Section 809 (b). The Harris Rider has shaped and influenced DC weed laws in more ways than one.
After the passing of Initiative 71 which decriminalized small possession and consumption of marijuana in 2015, the next obvious step was for the legalization of recreational marijuana sales. Unfortunately, Republican Andy Harris, year after year, would sneak into a much larger spending bill of the United States Congress legislation, a rider, which would block the city of Washington DC from using its Federal Funds to create a legalized recreational dispensary like most other states have.
Why Andy Harris's Bill Passes Each Year
The Harris Rider bill is actually just a small subsection inside a much larger bill known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023. Appropriation bills are seen as “must-pass” bills in the eyes of congress, and if not passed, the threat of a government shutdown is right around the corner. Because these Appropriation Acts are must-pass bills, members of congress can use them as a chance to attach policy changes, even if those policies would be difficult to pass on their own.
By attaching bills (riders) to the much larger “must-pass” Appropriations, the other members of congress will have to support the larger bill as a whole to avoid a government shutdown.
They are called policy riders - because they “ride” on top of a larger must-pass bill. And because the president lacks the ability to line-item veto authority (meaning they can’t selectively veto parts separate parts of a bill; they have to sign or veto the entire bill). They must sign the appropriations bill as-is, which means policy riders have a high likelihood of becoming law.
Policy riders tend to be controversial, and they are seen more as “strings attached” to appropriation bills that must become law. In the case of the Harris Rider bill, Andy Harris would put this rider in every year in an effort to impose his will on the 700,000 DC residents he does not represent, banning DC from using the Federal and tax budget on legalizing recreational sales of marijuana.
In the next section, we will go over what the Harris Rider blocks funds on specifically.
Will the Rider Ever be Removed by Congress?
With the Republicans holding the house majority in 2023, the Harris Rider has been intentionally included in the base bill. The Fiscal Year 2024 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill states in the Policy Riders section: “Retains the ban on Federal and local funds to legalize marijuana in D.C.”
In light of it all, during the Full Committee Hearing on May 16, 2023, recent GOP members including key Republican lawmakers told Mayor Bowser at the end of the hearing that the DC marijuana issue was “one of the things that caught my attention”.
Mayor Muriel Bowser went on to state in the GOP meeting, “currently we can’t tax and regulate cannabis for example, which we do think has a public safety impact. The men and women of the police department are battling gray market cannabis sales daily that if we had a tax and regulate system we could implement a more safe system.”
Mayor Bowser passed The Medical Cannabis Amendment Act of 2022, to help the declining sales of medical marijuana dispensaries and open up opportunities for unregulated gifting stores to becomes medical dispensaries. Currently, these gifting stores allow you to buy marijuana without a DC medical marijuana card and have lower prices and some of the best quality weed in DC that you will find. That makes I71 gifting stores the preferred option to purchase cannabis in DC, all in thanks to the Harris Rider bill.
The Harris Rider bill blocks funds on the following:
1. DC cannot regulate sales of recreational marijuana
In order to begin the sales of recreational marijuana there first needs to be laws created and this requires a budget to implement. The Harris Rider blocks Washington DC from using Federal funds to create any regulation, law, or rules related to the distribution of any Schedule I substance including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for recreational sales.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said D.C. was “ready” to regulate recreational cannabis only as soon as congress would allow it. Mayor Bowser expressed, “we have to get the hurdle of congress out the way”.
Each year DC cannabis advocates are hopeful the rider will be removed, but unfortunately the Federal ban that has been blocking DC from regulating marijuana sales for nearly a decade will be renewed again under a Fiscal Year 2024 spending bill that cleared a congressional panel on in 2023.
For a full break down, check out our guide: is recreational weed legal in DC?
2. DC cannot create laws to reduce penalties associated with sales of marijuana
Andy Harris’s Rider bill also blocks DC from using local funds to create any laws which would reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C 80 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.
This portion of the Harris Rider bill puts a ton of tension on the I71 gifting market, which currently has well over 100 stores in DC which are under constant threat, including the recent attempt by ABRA (now known as ABCA) who created the Joint Cannabis Task Force comprised of multiple agencies to begin inspecting, fining, and charging gifting stores.
The Harris Rider bill not only blocks DC from creating laws to regulate recreational sales, it also prevents DC from creating laws to reduce penalties from the sales of recreational cannabis to protect themselves from agencies such as the Joint Cannabis Task Force.
Andy Harris’s Rider bill directly blogs DC from using its tax dollars to implement a recreational cannabis market. Year after year this rider bill, piggybacks on must-pass Appropriation bills and is still in effect from 2023 into 2024 fiscal year. The Harris Rider bill blocks Washington D.C. not only from using Federal funds to implement the sales of recreational cannabis but also laws to reduce charges for sales of recreational cannabis, effectively grid locking DC to be forced to only purchase marijuana through medical dispensaries. The result was the birth of the Initiative 71 gifting market, which now has over 100 unregulated dispensaries.