D.C. Council proposes legalization of medical marijuana

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; B01

Medical marijuana will be legally available at five District locations under a plan a majority of the D.C. Council supports, moving the city closer to becoming the 15th jurisdiction nationally to distribute the drug to chronically ill patients.

Under legislation -- sponsored by nine of the 13 members -- dispensaries could issue a month's supply of marijuana at a time to registered patients who have prescriptions. Patients would not be allowed to grow marijuana, but the dispensaries could be set up in every quadrant of the city. A dispensary, however, would not be allowed within 1,000 feet of schools or youth centers, essentially keeping dispensaries out of many city neighborhoods.

Council member David A. Catania, chairman of the Health Committee, said the proposal, which could be voted on by the summer, would guarantee that the drug went to those who need it while guarding against a "Camp Run-amok program that invites [Congress] to come in and shut it down."

"If we have a tightly regulated system . . . it gives us a better chance," said Catania (I-At Large), the bill's lead sponsor. "I want this to be professional and orderly and evidence-based."

If approved by the full council and signed into law by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the District would join 14 states in allowing medical marijuana. But only California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Maine have laws allowing government-sanctioned dispensaries.

Before the District can join those places, city leaders must still answer a host of questions about how the program would work.

The most daunting is who can be trusted to grow and distribute the drug. The city must also decide where dispensaries could securely grow crops in the District. Shipping the drug across state lines through Maryland and Virginia is not an option, because in those states it's still illegal to grow or transport marijuana for medical purposes.

"That is going to be resolved by rulemaking by the mayor," Catania said.

Attorney General Peter Nickles said the administration would work with the council on the legislation.

Catania's proposal is designed to implement a 1998 voter-approved initiative that called for the legalization of medical marijuana in the District. After Initiative 59 was approved with 69 percent of the vote, the then-GOP-controlled Congress blocked it from being implemented. But the Democratic-controlled Congress removed those restrictions last month.

"We have seen an increasing number of states that have moved in the direction of permitting medical marijuana, so we are moving forward," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

Catania said he believes his bill "will be a model for other states."

The measure would allow either patients or their registered caregivers to receive the marijuana from a dispensary. Patients would have to pay for the drug, but the legislation requires providers to supply low-income patients with marijuana at a reduced price.

Wayne Turner, who led the effort to get Initiative 59 on the ballot as his late partner was battling AIDS, called Catania's bill "a positive step forward."

But Turner said the legislation will need to be refined in the coming weeks.

As drafted, the Health Department will establish the medical conditions under which patients could qualify for a prescription. Catania's bill states that the conditions should be based on illnesses that are "chronic or long-lasting, debilitating [and] produce intractable pain which does not respond to ordinary medical or surgical measures."

Mike Meno, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his organization fears that criteria is too restrictive.

"We are just worried the decisions about who can use marijuana is being left up to bureaucrats and not doctors," he said.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, said his organization will fight the bill's 1,000-foot rule because in a dense urban setting the rule is too restrictive. "You would have to be on a dock somewhere," he said.

The biggest debate, however, will likely center on who grows and distributes the drug.

In California, where many cities had few regulations on how the drug was distributed, medical marijuana has become a $1.5 billion-a-year industry. But Turner said he wants nonprofit organizations to be in charge of distributing the drug in the District.

"We did not stand out there gathering signatures all those years just for entrepreneurs from California to come in and set up shop," said Turner, adding he fears private companies would engage in "price-gouging on people with AIDS."

Turner said he could support allowing medical or governmental organizations, such as the Whitman Walker Clinic or the Health Department, to be in charge of distributing the drug.

Catania notes any organization that distributed the drug in the District would be taking a risk because medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

President Obama said last year that the Justice Department will no longer interfere with local medical marijuana laws.

But Catania fears a future administration could take a different stance.

"I would rather not have the Department of Health engaged in the cultivation of marijuana," Catania said.

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