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How to Open a Marijuana Dispensary in DC

Conflicting cannabis laws have resulted in a unique cannabis industry in the nation's capital. In 2014, Washington D.C. passed Initiative 71, which legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Although adult-use marijuana is legal in the District of Columbia (D.C.), recreational cannabis sales remain illegal. However, D.C. residents can purchase medical marijuana from medical cannabis dispensaries in D.C.

Congress Controls the Laws of the District of Columbia

The District of Columbia occupies an unusual position in our country. It is the seat of our nation's capital. D.C. is a territory created by Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution to be separate from any state and governed by Congress.

It was not until 1973, with the passage of the Home Rule Act, that the District could elect its own mayor and governing council for the first time. Still, Congress continues to exercise oversight of the District's laws. In fact, Congress has blocked the District from legalizing the sale of marijuana.

Legal Use of Marijuana in the District of Columbia

It took a long time, but eventually, Congress stopped blocking the District's marijuana laws, making it legal to obtain marijuana through the medical marijuana process. Limited marijuana cultivation for recreational use is also legal.

However, the retail sale of recreational cannabis is still prohibited. You can gift or donate recreational marijuana to someone as long as you do not receive money, goods, or services in exchange for it. Enterprising citizens of the District have taken to selling T-shirts, art, and other items along with a "gift" of marijuana.

There are no adult-dispensary storefronts in D.C. Sales occur at designated places. While it is legal to give marijuana to someone, the sale of other items along with that gift can run afoul of the law quickly. Before March 2023, there were limits on the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in D.C. Now the "gift" shops can get licenses as medical marijuana dispensaries.

Marijuana Dispensary Laws and Information

While you cannot open a recreational cannabis retail establishment, you can open a medical marijuana dispensary. You will required to have a dispensary license. The Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Administration (ACBA), formerly known as the Alcohol Beverage Regulatory Agency (ABRA), oversees D.C.'s medical cannabis program. ACBA is also in charge of issuing medical cannabis licenses. Below is a summary of the laws and regulations for opening a medical marijuana dispensary in the District of Columbia.

Statutes District of Columbia Laws

  • Cultivation Centers, manufacturers, retailers, internet retailers, and testing laboratories: DC Code § 7–1671.06

Federal Law Controlled Substance Act: Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, as is the use of marijuana on federal lands. This is important, considering that 29% of D.C. is under federal control.

On October 6, 2022, President Biden pardoned federal and D.C. simple marijuana possession convictions under OMB Control No: 1123-0014.

Preliminary Information

  • Medical marijuana dispensaries must register with the mayor.
  • ACBA administers the registration and license application for medical marijuana business owners.
  • An owner can only register for one medical marijuana dispensary.

Application Process

  • You must meet general qualification requirements (good character; over 21; no felony convictions except for any exemption under the Social Equity Program)
  • Applications are only accepted during open application periods
  • Letter of intent

Registration and License Fees are required for the application and permit. Social equity applicants have reduced application fees. 50% of new licenses must go to social equity applicants who then have 75% of their application and licensing fees waived for their first three years.

  • Retailer License
    • Initial application fee: $8,000
    • Annual license fee: $16,000
  • Cultivator License
    • Initial application fee: $8,000
    • Annual license fee: $11,000 to $36,000
  • Internet Retailer License
    • Initial application fee: $8,000
    • Annual license fee: $16,000
  • Manufacturer License
    • Initial application fee: $4,000
    • Annual license fee: $4,000 to $8,000
  • Testing Lab License
    • Initial application fee: $3,500
    • Annual license fee: $7,500

Hours of OperationMedical marijuana dispensary are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m

Application Selection ProcessACBA uses a point process to select and award medical marijuana business licenses. Applicants must address specified criteria in their application. Applicants get points for each area addressed. These areas include:

  • Location
  • Staffing
  • Security
  • Inventory of cannabis products
  • Business plan and startup costs
  • Neighborhood impact
  • Educational materials

RequirementsLocation RequirementsMedical marijuana dispensaries:

  • Cannot be within 300 ft. of a school or recreational center
  • Cannot be at any location that also sells alcohol
  • Cannot have any other type of business at the location
  • Cannot be in a residential district

Marijuana Training and Education CertificatesTraining and education certificates are needed for:

  • Directors, officers, members, incorporators, and agents
  • Employees
  • Managers

Criminal Background ChecksCriminal background checks demanded for:

  • Directors, officers, members, incorporators, and agents
  • Employees
  • Managers

Note: While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Related Resources

Need Help Understanding the Cannabis Business Requirements?

If you are an entrepreneur looking to enter D.C.'s cannabis market, you should contact a Washington D.C. attorney who focuses on cannabis law. A local cannabis business attorney can explain the licensing process and help you prepare the necessary documents.

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