By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; B02
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.
The legislation also says distributors cannot grow more than 95 marijuana plants at a given location, an apparent effort to keep dispensers within federal law that heightens penalties on anyone arrested with at least 100 plants.
Some growers expressed concern over the provision, citing the lack of a profit after one invests in the equipment needed to produce high-quality marijuana.
"There is no way a facility with 95 small plants can create pharmaceutical grade marijuana," said one grower, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he might be in conflict with federal law. "It's like you custom-building a car at home -- it would cost you a half-million dollars to do that."
DeAngelo said the 95-plant rule is similar to one imposed in New Mexico, where he said the limit has made it impossible for suppliers to keep up with demand.
Although the legislation says a dispensary cannot be placed within 300 feet of a school, the Department of Health and zoning officials will have to develop regulations outlining more specifically where the facilities can be located.
Deborah Thomas, an ANC commissioner for the U Street neighborhood in Northwest Washington, said she opposes dispensaries in her neighborhood.
"We are just getting to a point where our neighborhood is getting cleaned up, and to add that to the mix, that would set us back," Thomas said. "We already have teens smoking marijuana . . . what is to say someone is not going to walk out of that door and sell the marijuana, or what's to say the teens won't rob them?"