April 6, 2012

On March 30, the District took a step that was almost 14 years overdue — it granted licenses to six medical marijuana cultivators . With this action, the District is finally moving toward implementing the medical marijuana program that was overwhelmingly approved in a 1998 vote.

But ever since D.C. voters from across the city gave medical marijuana the go-ahead, the program has faced a number of obstacles. While some have been outside the city’s control — Congress prohibited the program’s implementation for more than a decade, for one — others have been homegrown. Ironically, it’s these self-imposed impediments that threaten the viability of a program that is only now starting to take shape.

In the last three months, the D.C. Council has passed additional restrictions on the locations of the 10 marijuana cultivation centers it originally authorized in a 2010 law. In January, it capped the number of cultivators in any one ward to six. Last month, it approved legislation introduced by council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) that explicitly targeted for removal one potential cultivation center in her ward.

The council’s actions have come very late in the game — the rules outlining where cultivation centers can open have been public since August 2010, and hopeful cultivators submitted applications to the D.C. Department of Health in October. (Not surprisingly, the council also made its moves before the April 3 D.C. primary.)

These last-minute changes are wreaking havoc with the program. Because of the new restrictions, the Department of Health had little choice but to limit itself to six cultivation center licenses, despite the fact that the program’s original rules envisioned 10, each growing 95 plants. Five of those centers are in Ward 5, and the remaining one — in an unused warehouse along Benning Road NE — is now off-limits because of Alexander’s bill and will have to find another site.

Advocates for the program already worry that the supply of medical-grade marijuana will be so limited that prices for qualifying patients — D.C. officials anticipate 800 in the first year, advocates think it could be twice that — will be prohibitively high. While the program does envision discounts for low-income patients, the reality is that legal medical marijuana might well be significantly more expensive than its illegal street-grade alternative — or it might just not be available to those who need it most.

And that’s just factoring in the hoops that the cultivation centers have had to jump through. The five dispensaries that will sell the marijuana to qualifying patients have yet to be chosen, a process that could well feature more opposition and obstacles.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said during a recent debate that the fights over where the marijuana will be grown “pales in comparison to the controversy that is coming when we have to take up the issue of dispensaries.” The Department of Health hopes to hand out dispensary licenses this summer, but the question remains whether it will be as hamstrung as it was with the cultivation centers.

There was a certain advantage to waiting 14 years to implement a medical marijuana program in the District. When Congress finally allowed the city to proceed, officials could look to other states with similar programs to learn what to do and what to avoid. (In short, don’t do what California did.) A tightly controlled program was created with the goal of providing marijuana to only the neediest patients — those with HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, cancer and multiple sclerosis — while carefully avoiding the ire of federal drug enforcement.

But those 14 years have also taken a toll. Advocates for medical marijuana in the District are a small and fractious bunch; few, if any, appeared at the recent council hearings to advocate on behalf of the patients that would benefit from the program. Worse, the results of the 1998 vote seem to have faded from memory; at Ward 5 ANC meetings where cultivation centers were discussed, it appeared to have been all but forgotten that 63.7 percent of the ward’s residents had voted for the program. (Citywide, the vote was 69 percent in favor.)

Additionally, in the city’s zeal to be the anti-California, D.C. officials scrapped the one option that could have spared the program from such determined community and council opposition: home cultivation. The program’s advocates argue that allowing patients to grow their own marijuana would avoid having to pitch skeptical residents on the merit of “pot farms” near their homes.

City officials still hope to have medical marijuana for patients by the end of 2012. But can the council keep itself from imposing further restrictions that might sink the program altogether?

The writer is editor of DCist. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.