Jan 12, 2024 - News

D.C. school parents fight to stop proposed marijuana dispensary

Illustration of a marijuana leaf on a scale

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Parents at BASIS DC, a competitive Penn Quarter charter school, are battling to stop a potential cannabis dispensary from opening nearby.

Why it matters: The District is in the weeds of cannabis regulation, and the fight reveals a potential loophole that could affect areas near schools and youth centers as enforcement takes shape.

Driving the news: A dispensary is applying for a license under D.C.'s expanded medical marijuana program to sell cannabis 253 feet from the middle and high school.

  • Parents and other opponents raised alarm about the prospect at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission hearing this week. Some tell Axios the location is too close to BASIS and puts students at risk.
  • D.C. Council member Charles Allen plans to write a letter to the Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration (ABCA) opposing the location on behalf of affected Ward 6 families who attend the school.

Catch up quick: The city expanded its medical marijuana program in 2022, creating a pathway for unlicensed weed "gifting shops" to become legally permitted or face crackdowns.

  • D.C.'s Medical Cannabis Amendment Act took effect last March, and the ABCA opened a 90-day transition period for unlicensed businesses to apply in November.

The intrigue: Existing law says cannabis licensees — including dispensaries and growing facilities — can't operate within 300 feet from D.C. schools, daycares, and recreation centers. But, there may be a loophole under this transition period.

Between the lines: The legislation contains an exception to the 300-foot rule "when the school is zoned commercial," an ABCA official tells Axios.

  • In this case, the neighborhood in which BASIS DC is located is zoned for commercial use. And the loophole could also impact a number of other urban areas.

Of note: Applicants must also prove to have operated elsewhere in D.C. since Dec. 31, 2022.

  • "A similar exception currently exists in the District alcohol laws and also applies to liquor license applications," the ABCA rep says.

What they're saying: The dispensary applicant UND Necessities LLC, which previously operated a shop on H Street NE, said in a statement to Axios that it "appreciates the concerns" of the community and is ready to engage in more discussions for "an amicable resolution."

  • It explains that it plans to sell exclusively to individuals age 21+ who have a medical cannabis card.

The other side: ANC commissioner Michael Shankle calls the exception "a potential flaw in the legislation." "It puts young individuals in our communities at what I'd describe as an elevated risk of usage," Shankle tells Axios.

  • "When we're thinking about reinventing and revitalizing downtown post-pandemic and post-potential Capital One Arena situation, we do not want to alienate D.C. residents who use downtown for their schools."

Zoom out: Other cities across the country have regulated cannabis businesses at greater distances from schools — sometimes with exceptions — including Chicago (500 ft.), San Francisco (600 ft.), and Denver (1,000 ft. by a straight line).

What's next: The ANC is protesting the license and plans to move forward with mediation.

  • If ABCA receives a valid protest letter, a hearing will take place in February and an evidentiary protest hearing is scheduled for April.

What we're watching: Allen just introduced emergency legislation this week to address enforcement gaps for weed "gifting" shops as they apply for medical licenses.

  • The legislation, which Allen will soon put forward in a permanent version, empowers ABCA to issue warnings, fines, and cease-and-desist orders to unlicensed businesses.
  • It also allows neighborhood ANCs to provide more input on these applications, similar to when they're considering liquor licenses.
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