The DC cannabis scene is an unusual one. While both recreational and medical marijuana are legal in the nation’s capital, there are very different ways for consumers and patients to access it.
Legal to Possess and Grow, Not to Buy or Sell
In 2014, District voters passed “The Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act,” also known as Initiative 71. The initiative, which took effect February 2015, made it legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis, grow up to three mature and three immature plants in their homes, and transfer up to one ounce to another adult. It’s great news for those with green thumbs. But unlike most other adult-use cannabis states, the purchase or sale of cannabis remains illegal.
The “Gifting” Economy
In the absence of a regulated market for cannabis, a gray market “gift economy” has emerged. Essentially, consumers pay businesses for a non-cannabis product—say, a t-shirt—and the company tosses in a “free gift” of cannabis. The services are advertised openly and even make local deliveries.
Popup events are also common, and they tend to work the same way. Vendors sell unrelated items, such as stickers, at marked-up prices, then provide marijuana as a “gift” alongside the other products.
Because such events are only quasi-legal, they’re generally advertised covertly—usually on private Facebook groups or Instagram, identified with hashtags such as “#i71compliant” or “#dcweedevents.” Visitors are usually required to RSVP to the event organizer, who then replies with the event address—giving these meetups a serious speakeasy vibe. Once you show up, though, many feel more like a farmer’s market or low-key trade show.
Too good to be true? Perhaps. The Metropolitan Police Department has said these events are illegal, and this year has stepped up its enforcement. In January, police began raiding and arresting people associated with the popups. And last month, following the arrest of 27 more people, the department warned that it’s now aggressively targeting the events. Often raids are spurred by neighbors who complain of smoke wafting from the underground meetups.
Avoid Federal Property
It’s important to note that Initiative 71 does not apply on federal property—and 22% of DC is federal property. If you’re caught with cannabis on the National Mall or other memorial locations, for example, you may face federal marijuana charges. You don’t want that.
While any adult in Washington DC can legally grow cannabis at home, not everyone has a green thumb. Luckily, medical patients have additional rights—and access to licensed dispensaries.
DC’s medical marijuana program is now five years old, and access has expanded over the past year. Physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners, and dentists can now issue cannabis recommendations, and patients are now allowed to patronize more than one dispensary.
There are currently five dispensaries serving patients within the District:
Reciprocity for Visiting Medical Patients
Dispensaries in the capital can legally sell cannabis to registered DC medical patients as well as patients from 16 other states: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington state.
Patients with recommendations issued in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Vermont, however, are not currently included in the program. This is because the DC Department of Health considers those state programs to be too different in terms of enrollment or because those states’ medical marijuana programs aren’t yet fully operational.
How To Get a Medical Marijuana Card in Washington DC
Washington DC’s medical marijuana program is quite flexible. While the program lists specific qualifying conditions, it also allows patients to obtain cannabis for “any condition for which treatment with medical marijuana would be beneficial, as determined by the patient’s physician.”
The first step in getting a card is to consult with a physician, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, or dentist. These health professionals can issue recommendations to DC residents that allow them to legally purchase medical marijuana from dispensaries in the District. You may use your personal physician, but only if they have been previously verified by the Department of Health.
As part of the recommendation process, you’ll be given a recommendation number. With that in hand, you’re ready for your next step, which is to submit your patient application to the Department of Health. The application consists of a headshot, photo ID, and two forms of proof that you’re a D.C. resident. There’s also a $100 application fee, though low-income patients may qualify for a reduced fee of $25. (For more information, see the Health Department’s patient checklist.)
Application forms and more information can be found on the Department of Health’s website. If you’re in a hurry, it’s a good idea to submit the form online, as the Department of Health will process your application faster.
As soon as you receive your medical marijuana card, you are ready to purchase marijuana from any dispensary in the District! Be sure to bring your card and a government-issued ID with you to one of the five dispensaries!