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D.C. Council approves medical marijuana bill

By Tim Craig
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; 12:48 PM

The D.C. Council gave final approval to legalized medical marijuana today, but only after members agreed to make it easier for qualified patients to obtain larger quantities of the drug.

The bill, which now goes to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), originally restricted chronically ill patients with a doctors' recommendation to no more than two ounces of marijuana in a 30-day period. But the council approved an amendment giving the Fenty administration the authority to set the possession limit at four ounces a month if it decides the need exists.

If, as expected, Fenty signs the bill, Congress will have 30 days to review it before it becomes law.

Under the legislation, the city will set up five to eight dispensaries where patients with chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS or cancer can purchase the drugs. Poor patients will be eligible for subsidized marijuana. But patients could not grow their own marijuana.

Before the final vote, council members David Catania (I-At Large) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) fought off efforts by council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) to make substantial changes to the legislation.

Graham pushed for an amendment that would have established civil protections so medical marijuana patients and their caregivers could not be fired or kicked out of their apartments because they use the drug.

Catania and Mendelson argued that Graham's proposal would open the door to legalization.

"You can have an airline pilot who could not be fired under the amendment Mr. Graham has offered," Catania said.

Graham countered that Catania's allegation was absurd, saying the amendment was designed to protect medical marijuana users from discrimination.

"This is doing what this council does in so many areas where we say we care about human rights," Graham said.

Graham also unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment that would have allowed D.C. residents to use doctors from Maryland or Virginia to obtain a recommendation for medical marijuana. Graham noted that many District residents currently go to doctors in the suburbs. Catania worried that Graham's proposal would open the door to fraud.

"It could make a mockery of our law," Catania said.

Catania and Mendelson, who wrote the legislation, also strongly defended a provision in the bill that allows for-profit companies to run the dispensaries. Graham, backed by medical marijuana advocates, said he was concerned that for-profit companies will care more about making money then they do about caring for patients.

"We should not allow patient health to take a back seat to profit," Graham said.

Under the legislation, the mayor and Department of Health will be tasked with determining what for-profit or nonprofit companies get the chance to run the city-sanctioned dispensaries and cultivation centers.

In defending a possible for-profit approach, Catania said he hoped that the council would one day be able to assess taxes on medical marijuana.

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