Medical marijuana is now legal in the District after the Democrat-controlled Congress declined to overrule a D.C Council bill that allows the city to set up as many as eight dispensaries where chronically ill patients can purchase the drug.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said in a statement the bill become law after Congress finished its business Monday night because neither the House nor Senate opted to intervene.
The council approved the bill in May, and under Home Rule Congress had 30 legislative days to review it.
"We have faced repeated attempts to re-impose the prohibition on medical marijuana in D.C. throughout the layover period," said Norton. "Yet, it is D.C.'s business alone to decide how to help patients who live in our city and suffer from chronic pain and incurable illnesses."
Although the bill has now cleared Congress, patients will likely have to wait at least several months before they can obtain the drug from a city-sanctioned dispensary.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the Department of Health now have to establish regulations outlining who can bid for a license to open a dispensary. (See how different states handle medical marijuana.)
The law allows patients with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and other chronic ailments can possess up to four ounces of the drug.
Patients will not be allowed to grow their own marijuana, but licensed companies will be able to sell the drug to people who first obtain a doctor's prescription.
The council also approved a provision in the 2011 budget that calls for medical marijuana to be subject to the city's 6 percent sales tax. Underprivileged residents who qualify will be eligible to purchase their drugs free or at reduced cost.
Under the legislation, sponsored by council members David A. Catania (I-At large) and Phil Mendelson (D-At large), both non-profit and for-profit organizations will be eligible to operate the dispensaries.
Even after the Department of Health licenses the dispensaries and cultivation centers, they could be delayed by a zoning process in which residents could protest where the dispensaries will be located. The legislation states the dispensaries will not be allowed to be located within 300 feet of a school.
Distributors also will be limited to growing no more than 95 marijuana plants at a given location, an apparent effort to keep dispensers within federal law that heightens penalties on anyone arrested with at least 100 plants.
The law caps a years-long struggle to act on a 1998 referendum in which 69 percent of District residents voted for to allow medical marijuana. Until last year, Congress blocked the city from enacting the referendum.
City leaders, hoping to avoid the quasi-legalization of the drug, say the District will have one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country. They fear a future Congress could reverse the law if it is abused.