By Martin Austermuhle in News on December 13, 2012 10:00 AM
As if to make a point, organizers of a town hall meeting on the city’s medical marijuana program put an old campaign sign for Initiative 59—the ballot measure that legalized the use of marijuana in D.C. for medicinal purposes—by the door of the room in which the meeting was held last night. The sign served as a reminder that even 14 years after 69 percent of D.C. resident voted in favor of the initiative—making D.C. the second jurisdiction in the country to do so—no patient has yet legally acquired marijuana through the program.
That will change early next year, as a torturous three-year-long regulatory process comes to an end and licensed cultivation centers and dispensaries finally open their doors to patients, potentially as early as February. Advocates of the program have certainly heard these promises before, but this time it seems more like a reality—the city’s first cultivation center (of six licensed earlier this year) was granted its certificate of occupancy yesterday, and various dispensaries are waiting final approvals from city officials.
The wait couldn’t end quickly enough for Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn and wife Stephanie, who have been paying rent on their Takoma-based dispensary location for the last 21 months without any certainty that they’d ever even dispense marijuana. (In April, the city gave four dispensaries, Kahn’s included, preliminary approval.) In recent months, though, city officials called the pair into private meetings to ensure that every remaining legal and regulatory hurdle could be cleared quickly.
"I think they’ve really been pushing for it to be going by December 31, and for a little while we thought that would be possible. It’s still maybe possible, but I think it will be by February 1 that everything will really be going," he said.
David Guard, who will operate a dispensary in Truxton Circle and cultivation center in Langdon under the trade name Capital City Care, seemed similarly relieved, having signed leases on both locations over a year ago and run the gauntlet of community meetings in which he tried to sell skeptical residents on the merits of both medical marijuana and his ability to safely grow and dispense it.
"This is right around the corner," he said yesterday. His dispensary received its certificate of occupancy yesterday, while the cultivation center will likely open next February. And while the wait has been long, Guard, who has been involved in the issue since a graduate school friend developed brain cancer and was aided by medical marijuana, says he’s looking forward to finally opening his doors. "In the end, I just want to see people healthier and happy."
Of course, none of this is to say that D.C.’s long-awaited medical marijuana program will grow quickly or that every hopeful patient will have access to medicine immediately.
According to the Department of Health, of the city’s 9,500 licensed physicians, only 110 have showed preliminary interest in recommending marijuana to patients. If a patient’s doctor isn’t on that list, they’ll have to find one that is—and develop an ongoing relationship with them.
And unlike in other states, only patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, or the effects of cancer treatment will be eligible, and only for two ounces a month. (An initial D.C. census estimated that 800 patients would qualify in the program’s first year.) City officials stress that this won’t be California, where an entire class of doctors that do nothing but recommend marijuana for everything from the sniffles to the shakes popped up over the last decade.
Additionally, not all of the six cultivation centers that will supply the medical marijuana will be up and running by early next year. Only three have received permits to do necessary construction, while two others have yet to request them. (Each center will be allowed to grow 95 plants at a time.) A sixth center that would have located in Ward 7 is still looking for a new site after the D.C. Council passed legislation in March specifically banning it from that site. Even the one center that has its certificate of occupancy—its located in Ivy City—will need a final green light from the Department of Health before it can start growing marijuana.
Finally, there’s the issue of expansion. The original law that moved the medical marijuana program forward allowed only for 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries. Earlier this year, the council moved to limit how many cultivation centers could locate in Ward 5, despite the fact that the majority of the land zoned for the cultivation centers’ use is there. The program could still grow, but it won’t happen quickly.
But for Dr. Patricia Hawkins of the D.C. Community AIDS Network, a slow-growing and tightly-regulated program is better than no program at all. "We had to make the rules, and we had to make them so strict and so tight that Congress would not then jump in again," she said, referencing a decade worth of congressional interference that stopped the city from implementing the medical marijuana program. (A Department of Health official joked that a 14-page bill passed by the council in 2010 was turned into over 120 pages worth or rules and regulations.)
"Now we’ve got it, and it’s incredible. It’s unbelievable we got it through. We’re in the capital city, and we’re doing something no one thought could happen," she said.
See all of our medical marijuana coverage here.