Washington D.C. Mayor Vince Gray announced last week that the nation’s capital would finally establish their medical marijuana program based on legislation passed by the D.C. City Council in May 2010 – a decision some 13 years in the making. The rule-bound, restrictive program establishes ten growing centers and five dispensaries to be granted licenses by a five-member panel. Patients cannot grow their own medicine; they must obtain pot from a licensed dispensary. While all that seems reasonable, only a limited number of chronic diseases have been deemed acceptable for access to medicine; patients with cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis can possess up to four ounces of cannabis. There is no age limit, but minors under 18 must have parental permission to use medi-pot.


The actual program won’t be implemented until later this year, as the D.C. Council still must approve the Mayor’s proposal or 90 days must pass; but by July Mayor Gray should be able to assemble the panel that will review and grant applications for the grow centers and dispensaries. The D.C. Department of Health will oversee the medi-pot program.


Initiative 59, the Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative, was passed in November 1998 with a resounding 69 percent of the D.C. vote. However, the then-Republican controlled U.S. Congress wasn’t about to permit medi-pot in their backyard (never mind they hold their jobs via election, the same process by which medi-pot was legalized). The then-Democratic controlled Congress relented in July 2010 and allowed D.C. to implement the aforementioned city council legislation. However, concern that a future Congress (already controlled by the GOP once more) could repeal the medi-pot law is the motivation of D.C. city leaders to make the program highly selective.


There are 300 proposed rules to the D.C. medi-pot program, including one that mandates dispensary operators must be of “good character” – meaning not even a misdemeanor drug conviction in their past. There could be delays in establishing the program due to strict zoning laws that permit residents to protest selected locations for the dispensaries and cultivation centers; also, none can exist within 300 feet of a school.   


Dispensaries can be either profit or nonprofit, but all are required to establish a ‘sliding scale’ so low-income patients can afford their medicine, making D.C. unique among states that have legal medi-pot. Cultivators can grow no more than 95 plants at an individual locale, and while that total skirts under increased federal penalties for 100 plants, it could lead to shortages of medicine like those that routinely occur in New Mexico.


Despite all these limitations and restrictions, patients, potential medical cannabis entrepreneurs and activist groups like Marijuana Policy Project were ecstatic over the news, as they have struggled for over a decade to see a distribution program established for medical marijuana long since legalized in D.C.

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