D.C. medical marijuana sales off to slow start

Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST - FILE: Barrett Nnoka, a partner with Medicinal Marijuana Company of America, holds a hat with the company logo on it.

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In the three months that medical marijuana has been legal to purchase in the District of Columbia, sales have yet to advance beyond a trickle.

The city’s pioneering dispensaries say they are losing money; doctors remain fearful to write prescriptions; and patients with HIV or cancer who may legally obtain the drug say they have been stymied by lengthy applications and warnings that the purchases remain illegal under federal law.

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Those were among the many warnings that advocates for a robust medical marijuana program ticked off Monday at a hearing, as they urged D.C. council members to relax the city’s strict medical marijuana standards.

Since the first legal purchase of medical marijuana in the District in late July, 59 patients, or fewer than one per day, have had their names added to the list of those legally registered to buy it, said Feseha Woldu, senior deputy director of the Health Regulation and Licensing Administration.

Just over half of those have HIV/AIDS. And the patients come from all corners of the city, with Ward 6 having the largest share, at 20 percent, and Ward 5 having the smallest, with 5 percent. Three quarters of the patients are male, Woldu said.

The figures, released Monday in a hearing before the council’s health committee, formed the basis for repeated pleas by advocates and residents to relax the rules.

For starters, advocates said the city needs to do a better job training and clearing up misconceptions for doctors about prescribing marijuana. The city should also expand the list of chronic or terminal illnesses that qualify for legal cannabis use, they said.

A father of a severely epileptic 4-year-old said his family would move to California next year if a refined version of cannabis that could limit his son’s 10-15 daily seizures is not authorized for therapy in the District.

Others said that post-traumatic stress disorders, digestive ailments, and migraine headaches should be added to the list. Some even argued that the list should be done away with entirely, and symptoms left up to doctors to manage with marijuana as they see fit.

Woldu stressed that the city had been prudent and its first priority remains to make sure that the public safely uses medical marijuana.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), and the health committee chair, said she was open to considering an expansion of the list of ailments that would qualify for medical marijuana use.

But she said was also concerned that concerned that so few people had taken advantage of the program so far. “We already have a lot of HIV, cancer, glaucoma -- there are thousands in the district ... We’re talking about expanding, but we’re not really utilizing it to the full extent currently.”

 
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