- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2021

Regional lawmakers are touting marijuana legalization as a way to foster social and racial equity.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced Monday a measure to tax and regulate sales of recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation over the weekend to legalize recreational pot, and Maryland lawmakers are considering a similar bill.

Mr. Mendelson’s bill seeks to impose a 13% tax on the sale of recreational cannabis and require at least half of all related business licenses be given to “social equity” applicants. The at-large Democrat defines social equity applicants as “residents who previously have been convicted of cannabis-related offenses or have lived 10 of the last 20 years in areas with high rates of poverty, unemployment and arrests.”

A “Cannabis Equity and Opportunity Fund” would receive 30% of the tax revenue and provide financial assistance to social equity applicants. A “Community Reinvestment Program Fund” would receive 50% of the revenue to help fund grants for groups dedicated to social issues like homelessness prevention and civil legal aid.

The bill also would expunge any pot-related arrests or convictions and would allow those who are incarcerated on such offenses to be given a resentencing review.

“This legislation will address inequities in the cannabis industry while providing for the safety and well-being of communities across the District,” Mr. Mendelson said in a press release. “Previous iterations of this legislation did not go far enough to right the wrongs of the past or provide access to opportunities for our residents, particularly Black residents who have been unjustly targeted by the drug war.”

The legislation came two days after Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled her own version of cannabis legislation that she said “is about safety, equity and justice.” Her bill calls for a 17% sales tax; reinvestment of tax revenue to help local groups, programs and social equity applicants; and expungement of certain pot convictions.

Lindsey Walton, a spokeswoman for Mr. Mendelson, told The Washington Times on Monday that he “was not aware that the mayor would be introducing a cannabis bill.”

The chairman’s bill was co-introduced by nearly all of his fellow council members, so Mr. Mendelson “anticipate[s] their preference to hold a hearing on the council bill instead of the mayor’s,” Ms. Walton said.

Miss Bowser did not respond to a request for comment.

A Republican-led Congress barred the District from using budget funds to tax and regulate marijuana sales in 2014, but Mr. Mendelson “is optimistic” that his measure will prevail in the now Democrat-controlled Congress.

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam is poised to sign the pot legalization bill approved Saturday by the Democrat-led General Assembly. Mr. Northam and other Democrats have heralded it as a way to address the unfair impact on people of color in the commonwealth under current marijuana laws.

The measure, set to take effect in 2024, would legalize up to an ounce of recreational marijuana for adult use and allow for taxation and regulation of its sale.

After Saturday’s vote, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia tweeted that the General Assembly “failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice.”

“Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist War on Drugs with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice,” the ACLU tweeted.

Opponents have argued that marijuana legalization may result in more drug-impaired driving crashes and an increase in use by young adults.

A similar measure was introduced last week in the Maryland House of Delegates, but it would be enacted in October of this year.

Both Maryland and Virginia’s legislation mirror the District’s bills by including a sales tax, a social equity applicant provision and community reinvestment funds. Maryland’s bill, however, would create an Office of Social Equity.

Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, testified that Maryland’s bill is a “rare” in its “opportunity to right past wrongs and create an inclusive economy.”

“[I]t really stands out amongst, frankly, all the bills that have been introduced in this country in its thoroughness to hit all of those,” Mr. Jealous said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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