D.C. Council unanimously backs medical marijuana in preliminary vote

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hundreds of chronically ill District residents will be able to buy government-sanctioned marijuana by the end of the year under a measure that was unanimously approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday.

Without debate, the council authorized five medical marijuana distribution centers throughout the city, a number that could grow to eight in coming years. A patient who has HIV, glaucoma, cancer or a "chronic and lasting disease" will be able to receive a doctor's recommendation to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana in a 30-day period.

Patients would not be allowed to grow marijuana but could buy it from dispensaries that are licensed and regulated by the Department of Health. Underprivileged residents who qualify will be eligible to purchase their drugs free or at reduced cost.

"This legislation seeks to avoid problems while assuring the District moves forward with a medical marijuana program that is based on evidence and best practices," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee.

Advocates heralded the council vote as one of the final steps of a years-long struggle to act on a 1998 referendum in which 69 percent of residents voted for medical marijuana.

But some advocates and marijuana growers say the District's law is destined to fail because it is too restrictive and, therefore, might not attract established growers who could meet the District's requirements.

"I think the bill is deeply flawed, and I don't think it is going to achieve the purpose, which is protect patients," said Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, which distributes medical marijuana to about 40,000 patients in California. "The regulations may be setting up a system that drives patients back onto the streets."

The legislation, which must be voted on a second time next month, sends the national debate over medical marijuana before Congress. Under Home Rule, Congress will get 30 days to review the legislation before it becomes law. With medical marijuana illegal under federal law, Congress will essentially be asked to look the other way.

Council members and advocates are optimistic that the Democratic-controlled Congress will avoid becoming involved in the issue, similar to its decision to not interfere with the District's recent move to legalize same-sex marriage.

"Our goal with this legislation is to make it very difficult for Congress to fault it and overturn it," said Wayne Turner, a District resident who fought for the 1998 referendum. "These dispensaries are going to look more like pharmacies than they are hash bars, and that is a good thing."

But critics say the approach could be problematic for the success of the program. Although the District's proposal specifies that growers need to cultivate "pharmaceutical" grade marijuana, distributors say only three companies in the world produce that grade.

When asked which companies might be interested in locating in the District, council staff members singled out Bedrocan International, which produces pharmaceutical-grade medical marijuana in the Netherlands. Company officials, however, said they cannot move to the District because they do not want to operate in conflict with U.S. law.

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