Medical marijuana dispensary prepares to open in D.C.

A townhouse on North Capitol Street in Northwest Washington, with unobstructed views of the U.S. Capitol from the sidewalk, was recently painted bright blue.

The fresh paint stands out in a changing block of Truxton Circle, home to both a Dollar Plus Food Store as well as a high-rise project with a planned hotel and condominiums.

But by spring, the townhouse at 1334 N. Capitol St. will make a bolder statement by becoming a symbol for the District’s leap into the growth and sale of medical marijuana.

“You can look out and see the dome of the Capitol,” said David A. Guard, the general manager of the Capital City Care dispensary, as he gave a Washington Post reporter a tour of the 2,000-square-foot office. “We want to set a precedent and want the country to see what medical marijuana can and should be.”

As early as February, some District residents will be able to enter the townhouse by showing proper identification to a security officer. They will be escorted to a brightly lighted office with brick walls and bamboo flooring.

The patients will have their prescriptions for marijuana — an illegal substance under federal law — verified by a receptionist. Then patients can consult an iPad in the office’s waiting area to review six strains of high-quality cannabis.

When they are called, patients will walk past a security guard in a glass-enclosed room scanning video from security cameras.

At another counter in the rear of the office, patients will then purchase — cash or credit — up to two ounces of medical pot help relieve pain, nausea or muscle spasms. Patients also will be able to buy water pipes, vaporizers or cigar pipes to inhale the drug in an adjoining showroom.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs gave Capital City Care approval in December to open once it receives a final inspection from the Department of Health.

In the coming weeks, another four dispensaries are expected to receive certificates of occupancy. They will be supplied by cultivation centers that can grow up to 95 marijuana plants at a time.

So far, the city has selected four cultivation centers. One of them, Holistic Remedies on Fenwick Street Northeast, also received its certificate of occupancy in December. It can plant its first crop after it receives a final inspection from health officials.

The pending openings mark the end of a laborious political and planning process that stretches back more than a decade. At the same time, the dispensaries and cultivation centers will test current and future federal administrations’ tolerance for the sale of medical pot in the District.

“We have had some false starts and [it] has not gone as quickly as we would have wanted, but it’s the price we pay for being cautious and thorough,” said Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the outgoing chairman of the council’s health committee. “I want this to start slowly.”

In a 1998 ballot referendum, 69 percent of District voters supported the creation of a medical marijuana program. But city leaders ignored the vote, fearing a then-Republican-controlled Congress would intervene or withhold funding for the city over the implementation of the program.

A decade later, Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress and the White House. In 2010, the council unanimously authorized medical marijuana after crafting what city officials say is the most tightly regulated program in the nation.

Under city regulations, only District residents with cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma qualify for a prescription. Qualifying patients can’t grow their own marijuana and must purchase it from licensed dispensaries, which are only permitted in industrial areas and at least 300 feet from schools and recreation centers.

Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, cultivation centers are limited to 95 plants at a time, just below the threshold that could trigger mandatory five-year federal sentences. It took the health department nearly two years after the council vote to craft 96 pages of regulations governing the program.

“We want to do it responsibly,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said. “I believe it has medicinal value, which is why we are going forward with this, but we want people to understand the rules.”

Yet, some worry the city’s program will be too constrained by bureaucracy and neighborhood opposition to serve those in need.

Although the law permits up to 10 cultivation centers, only six have been approved, in part because of opposition from some residents who live near industrial-zoned areas.

Earlier this year, the council implemented a ban on additional cultivation centers in Northeast, where 70 percent of industrial-zoned land is located.

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), the incoming chairman of the health committee, also successfully pushed to ban cultivation centers in future retail corridors such as Benning Road, east of the Anacostia River.

And with growing limits on dispensaries, advocates said demand could outstrip supply, perhaps driving up prices.

Another potential problem for patients might be finding a doctor willing to write a prescription for marijuana. Of the 9,500 licensed physicians in the District, only 110 have expressed interest in getting authorization to prescribe marijuana, said Feseha Woldu, a senior deputy at the health department.

Doctors who participate in the program will be closely scrutinized, officials said.

“This will not be the kind of setup like they have in California, where doctors will just see you and write medical marijuana prescriptions,” Carla Williams, a health department attorney, recently told potential patients at a town hall meeting.

Williams noted that the District’s program will be “the first of its kind” because the marijuana will be grown “in an all-urban environment,” raising concerns about security.

Guard said Capital City Care is well-prepared, telling a reporter, “You would have to be James Bond to break into the place.”

Although he declined to discuss some specifics, he said the office has at least a dozen surveillance cameras. Also, employees can only gain access to rooms through biometric scanning. When the store is closed, the marijuana will be stored in a safe similar to a small bank vault.

In the coming months, Capital City Care plans to hold open houses when residents, city officials, the media and members of Congress can tour the dispensary.

“We want people to come in here and feel like everything is calm,” Guard said. “It’s a time for patients to settle in and feel like home.”

 
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