D.C. Council approves limits on medical marijuana growth

January 17, 2012

The D.C. Council approved emergency legislation to restrict how much medical marijuana can be grown in each of the city’s eight wards, buckling to pressure from Northeast residents who fear Ward 5 could be overrun with large, indoor pot-growing operations.

After a debate that tested the council’s resolve to implement its medical marijuana program, members struck a compromise stating that no more than six cultivation centers can be located in any ward.

The practical result of the resolution is that six cultivation centers, each growing up to 95 marijuana plants, will probably be located in Northeast. Another could open in Ward 7, according to a council memo. Under the terms of the city’s medical marijuana law, 10 cultivation centers could open citywide.

In a law that could test federal authorities’ patience with medical marijuana, the council voted unanimously in 2010 to join 16 states in allowing chronically ill patients to obtain the drug. At the time, the council noted that 69 percent of District voters endorsed medical marijuana in a 1998 referendum.

But there have been signs that the public’s attitude has shifted in areas where medical marijuana cultivation centers and dispensaries could open.

Under the law, cultivation centers and dispensaries must be at least 300 feet from any school or recreation center. The Office of the Zoning Administrator has also ruled that cultivation centers should be located only in areas designated for light manufacturing.

The restrictions have driven many applicants wanting to grow the drug to parts of Northeast, which has historically been the center of the city’s industrial base.

According to a council memo, there have been 28 applications “to create and manage” medical marijuana cultivation centers. Of those, 26 were for locations in Ward 5. Seven cultivation centers have received favorable reviews from the Department of Health. Six of the seven are in Ward 5.

Some residents note that Ward 5 has absorbed several adult entertainment establishments and a waste-transfer station because of restrictive zoning in other city areas. “This is a perception that the ward is a dumping ground,” said Delano Hunter, a Ward 5 activist.

Last week, after Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr. resigned, several of his former colleagues said they could best fill the void left by the resignation.

Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At large), a former Ward 5 council member, quickly put together emergency legislation to restrict how many cultivation centers could be located in Northeast. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) endorsed the move, allowing the bill to come up for a vote Tuesday.

“This is just overburdening the residents of Ward 5,” Orange said.

Under Orange’s initial proposal, no more than five cultivation centers could be located in a ward. His bill also would have barred distribution centers from being in any ward that houses five cultivation centers.

But council members David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee, and Phil Mendelson (D-At large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, opposed Orange’s legislation. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) also opposed the bill, warning that it could undermine the medical marijuana law.

“Our law is already restrictive, so this is just adding restriction on top of restriction, which will make this product very difficult to obtain,” Mendelson said.

In the final minutes before Tuesday’s vote, Catania and Orange struck a compromise on the dais. As part of the deal, only one dispensary could be located in a ward where six dispensaries are — essentially meaning only one distribution location can open in Northeast.

“It is a compromise that ameliorates concerns in Ward 5 but also preserves the integrity of the medial marijuana program,” Catania said.

Jacqueline Manning, a Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner, countered that the compromise is not satisfactory to most Northeast residents. “We want none,” she said. “We are looking at the ward and we are looking at our ward getting better, moving forward and not being a dumping ground.”

But medical marijuana providers, who could include former talk show host Montel Williams, say neighborhood concerns are unfounded.

Williams is part of a group proposing to open the Abatin Wellness Center in the 2100 block of Queens Chapel Road. The Northeast building would consist of two separate cultivation centers that could grow a total of 190 plants.

Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for Williams, said the cultivation center will be located in a vacant building and will adhere to strict security procedures. “Our proposed cultivation center will be highly secure and practically impregnable for anyone who is not suppose to be in it,” Franks said.

Despite the compromise and neighborhood wrangling over the law, there is no guarantee that the city’s medical marijuana program will operate without federal scrutiny.

Medical marijuana is illegal under federal law. Although the Obama administration has said its Justice Department will not target dispensers, the Drug Enforcement Agency has conducted raids on some suspected medical marijuana facilities in recent months.

craigt@washpost.com

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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