Washington, D.C., Marijuana History,

Laws & Business Opportunities

In Washington, D.C., marijuana in all forms has been legal for close to a decade. Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress has erected roadblocks intended to prevent its capital from realizing its goal of having a fully functional cannabis economy.

With a thriving medical cannabis program, lawmakers and advocates are now focusing on growing a fully legalized adult-use cannabis economy. Here’s what to know about Washington, D.C., marijuana history, laws, and business opportunities.

THE HISTORY OF CANNABIS IN WASHINGTON D.C.

Initiative 59 was a 1998 Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that sought to legalize medical cannabis. The short title of the initiative was “Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998”. Though the initiative passed with 69% of the vote in November 1998, its implementation was delayed by Congress’s passage of the Barr Amendment, which prohibited DC from using its funds in support of the program. This Amendment delayed the start of the medical marijuana program until it was effectively overturned in 2009, with the first DC customer legally purchasing medical cannabis at a dispensary in the district in 2013. 

In May 2010, the Council of the District of Columbia passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana. The Congress did not overrule the measure within the 30-legislative-day period, and as a result medical cannabis became legal on January 1, 2011. Though carefully regulated through a lengthy permitting process, dispensaries began opening and cultivation grows were allowed. 

Initiative 71 was a Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. The short title of the initiative was Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014. The measure was approved by 64.87% of voters on November 4, 2014 and went into full effect February 26, 2015. 

Under the legalization measure that went into effect in 2015, persons over the age of 21 in D.C. may possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to three mature and three immature marijuana plants in their homes, and gift up to one ounce of marijuana to another individual. Drug paraphernalia, such as bongs, were also legalized. The sale, purchase, and public consumption of marijuana remains illegal. 

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Washington, D.C.,
Marijuana Laws

You might be surprised to learn that the seat of power of the United States has cannabis laws on the books that are contrary to U.S. federal law. As a result, it has spent the last two decades attempting to construct a viable cannabis economy. However, just because D.C. is able to draft its own laws, doesn’t mean it has full authority to implement and fund government-based initiatives.

Cannabis remains a Schedule I substance under federal law, which means the federal government recognizes cannabis has no legitimate personal or medical uses.

In November 2014, D.C. voters “overwhelmingly” approved Initiative 71, known as the Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Initiative. Those who are 21 years and older may:

  • Possess two ounces or less of adult-use cannabis
  • Transfer up to one ounce of cannabis to another adult over 21+ without remuneration
  • Cultivate up to six cannabis plants in their residence, so long as it’s for personal use and no more than three of the plants are mature;
  • Possess cannabis-related paraphernalia
  • Use cannabis on private property


It remains a crime in the District to:

  • Possess more than two ounces of cannabis
  • Smoke/consume cannabis in public places or spaces
  • Sell or buy any amount of cannabis from another person
  • Operate a vehicle or boat under the influence of cannabis
  • Possess any amount of cannabis if you are under the age of 21 years old

Under Mayor Browser’s proposed Safe Cannabis Sales Act, adults 21 and older would be allowed to purchase marijuana from licensed dispensaries starting Oct. 1, 2022. A 17% tax would be imposed on cannabis sales.

The bill would provide for automatic expungements of prior marijuana convictions and use part of the tax revenue from cannabis sales to support reinvestments in communities most impacted by prohibition. 

It would also create a new licensing category for delivery services, with a stipulation that eligibility is contingent on residency and income factors, such as requiring owners to have lived in certain low-income wards for at least five years.

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Licenses in WASHINGTON, D.C.

If you’re looking to attain a license for Washington, D.C., marijuana or hemp, Higher Yields Cannabis Consulting can help. Our team of cannabis licensing consultants and technical writers has had great success helping newcomers and experienced operators attain licenses all over the world.

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Medical Cannabis
in Washington, D.C.

Fortunately for patients in need, the District of Columbia has a successful medical cannabis program due to the 1998 initiative that removed district-level criminal penalties for medical cannabis.

Medical cannabis has been legal on the books in D.C. since 1998. But it wasn’t until 2009, when the Barr Amendment was removed, that medical cannabis started to become legally available, though through a significantly narrowed version of the 1998 voter initiative.

In 2014, the D.C. Council opened up the medical cannabis laws to meet the initially approved 1998 initiative. Now, it’s legal for patients to obtain medical cannabis without a doctor’s prescription.

For a full rundown of the medical cannabis program, you can read the Code of the District of Columbia.

Starting a Washington, D.C., Marijuana Business

The Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2021 laid out the types of adult-use cannabis licenses that would be available in the District. Here’s an overview of the licenses and their associated annual licensing costs:

  • Cultivation license. Three classes of licenses would be available and require annual licensing fees: Class A (2,000 plants – $5,000), Class B (6,000 plants  – $7,000), and Class C (10,000 plants – $10,000)
  • Manufacturing license. This would allow the license holder to process, package, and label cannabis products from a licensed cultivator, as well as allow for the sale and delivery of adult-use cannabis to licensed distributors, retailers, or testing facilities. The annual renewal cost is $6,000.
  • Distribution license. A distribution license allows the license holder to sell and deliver cannabis directly to retailers or to testing facilities. A distributor’s license has an annual licensing fee of $3,000.
  • Off-premises retailer license. This license would allow the license holder to directly sell to consumer cannabis products from licensed cultivators, manufacturers, or distributors, as well as allow the transfer of cannabis products to licensed testing facilities. It has an annual fee of $6,000.
  • Testing facility license. This license allows the licensee to test cannabis plants and products for contamination and potency and allows the transportation of samples to and from other licensees. To maintain a testing facility license, you will be required to pay an annual fee of $5,000.

Anyone interested in one of these licenses will be required to pay an initial application fee of $1,000, which is nonrefundable — even if your application is denied. There are several other license types available, such as for microbusinesses, on-premises retailers, managers, and workers. 

Medical Cannabis Licensing in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., offers six different types of medical cannabis business licenses. The D.C. Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration (ABCA) is the legal and administrative entity charged with overseeing the medical cannabis program.

All license applications, except for testing license applications, must be submitted during open periods. There are only several open periods in any given year, and as of June 14, 2023, only two open periods remain: August and November 2023.

There are six license types available for the medical cannabis program, each with its own set of requirements and fees:

Each license type has many intricacies involved with gaining approval by the District. For that reason, whether you’re interested in recreational or medicinal cannabis, the key to starting a successful Washington, D.C., marijuana business is to retain the services of highly experienced cannabis consultants, like the experts at Higher Yields Consulting, to navigate this complex process.

The Future of Washington, D.C., Marijuana

Washington, D.C., marijuana laws are an illustrative example of the U.S. cannabis landscape as a whole. While its constituent parts — the voters and City Council — have created and enacted cannabis-friendly laws, the larger elective body charged with oversight — U.S. Congress — continues to erect barriers preventing a fully functioning cannabis economy from forming.

Right now, the primary barrier to D.C. having a thriving adult-use cannabis economy is the Harris Rider. However, lawmakers and advocates are combining forces with the intent of overcoming these hurdles and realizing the District’s goal of creating an adult-use cannabis industry. 

Until the time when the D.C. adult-use cannabis economy comes into fruition, the D.C. medical cannabis industry is a source of opportunity. If you’re interested in starting a Washington, D.C., marijuana business, the next step is to contact a professional cannabis consulting company.

Our cannabis experts have decades of combined experience helping aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs realize their dreams of cannabusiness ownership. Contact us today to start making your green dreams your reality!

Last updated: June 2023

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