D.C. to announce six companies will grow medical marijuana

March 30, 2012

The District has selected six companies to grow marijuana and supply medical cannabis to users — clearing the way for growers to start producing hundreds of plants in as little as a month.

The Health Department is expected to announce Friday that it has selected the winning bidders for cultivating plants that will feed the dispensaries city officials hope to approve by the summer. All the growers will be in Northeast, including a company partly owned by celebrity talk show host Montel Williams.

Combined, they will be tasked with producing thousands of plants annually, in possible violation of federal law.

Two years ago, the D.C. Council voted to establish as many as 10 cultivation centers, where up to 95 marijuana plants could be grown at a time at each location. Once harvested, the marijuana will be sent to five distribution centers for patients to buy.

Mohammad N. Akhter, director of the Health Department, said he and a task force evaluated dozens of bidders before selecting the six applicants. Akhter said they were chosen based on their ability to grow “quality” marijuana “in a safe environment” that includes heavy security.

Akhter said he also tried to ensure that the cultivation centers were not too tightly clustered in the same blocks.

“I have taken every single step that I could to make sure this is done in a safe environment in which we can have a quality product that can meet the needs of the patient in a way that the community is also satisfied,” he said in an interview. “These are the best people who can do the best job.”

Williams’s cultivation center, Abatin Wellness Center, has been approved for the 2100 block of Queens Chapel Road in Langdon, according to a city list obtained by The Washington Post.

The department also selected Montana Apothecary dba Alternative Solutions in the 2100 block of 24th Place NE in Langdon; District Growers in the 2400 block of Evarts Street NE in Langdon; Holistic Remedies in 1800 block of Fenwick Street NE in Ivy City; Phyto Management in the 3700 block of Benning Road NE in Benning; and Venture Forth dba Center City in the 2200 block of Channing Street NE in Langdon.

Before the applicants can open, however, Akhter said they must apply for their business license and building permits from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. He added that the permitting process may take less than two weeks, meaning the marijuana growers may be able to start production in less than a month.

But Helder Gil, a spokesman for DCRA, said it could take some providers longer to open if they plan to make major renovations, including additional electric or water supplies.

“If they are just doing minor stuff . . . they can get a building permit quickly and then come in and get the sign-off,” Gil said.

The Health Department does not expect to complete the approval process for dispensaries until June.

“It takes about 90 days to grow the plants and have them ready,” Akhter said. “By the time growers are ready with the plants, the dispensaries should be in operation.”

But the District could still face big challenges in the implementation of its medical marijuana program.

In recent weeks, some residents and community activists fought attempts to open the cultivation centers in their neighborhood.

In January, D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At large) successfully pushed to limit the number of cultivation centers that could operate in Northeast. Last week, council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) won approval of a bill barring cultivation centers from high-profile retail corridors — including the location Phyto Management wants to open on Benning Road.

It was not clear Thursday night how the bill would affect the company’s plans, but Alexander pledged to work with the group to find a new location.

The fight over the cultivation centers could pale in comparison with the community opposition that could surface as the Department of Health reviews the applicants to run the distribution centers. But under the law, they are not allowed 300 feet from a school, recreation center or a city park.

Another challenge could come from law enforcement officials because, under federal law, the sale or possession of medical marijuana is illegal. Federal authorities have declined to publicly sanction the program, which restricts patients to no more than 2 ounces of marijuana per month.

But Akhter said he remains optimistic that the city’s program will withstand legal scrutiny, citing his view on the medical benefits of marijuana.

Under the city regulations, patients suffering from cancer, HIV-AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma qualify for the program.

“I know one thing for sure, there are a lot more dangerous drugs that we prescribe,” said Akhter, a former senior associate dean for public and international health at Howard University College of Medicine. “We made this program exactly like for other drugs we prescribe for other purposes.”

Although medical marijuana patients will not be able to grow their own marijuana, the District’s first purveyor of medical pot supplies plans to open on Rhode Island Avenue NE on Friday.

WeGrow, a company billing itself as the “Wal-Mart of Weed,” will sell materials needed to cultivate and care for the plants, but not the plants or seeds themselves.

Staff writers Mike DeBonis and Katie Rodgers contributed to this report.

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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