D.C.'s medical marijuana law has problems but is a step in the right direction

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, May 13, 2010

The risk with the District's new medical marijuana law isn't that the city will become another California with hundreds of pot shops and doctors who'll approve it for people feeling just jittery or blue. Instead, the worry is that the statute is so restrictive there won't be enough legal weed to meet demand.

Fearful that Congress might kill the law, the D.C. Council approved what cannabis advocates say is probably the least-permissive measure in the country.

No growing at home. Only five to eight "dispensaries" to sell it. Licensed cultivators are limited to 95 plants. They have to grow indoors, which means smaller plants.

The limits could mean that people with ailments such as cancer and multiple sclerosis would have to use the black market to get marijuana for relief from nausea, muscle spasms and other symptoms.

Other controversies are likely. Competition will be fierce among would-be pot entrepreneurs eager for lucrative licenses to operate dispensaries or grow plants. Unsettling r?sum?s will abound, such as from big operators outside the state and local people who've been in the business illegally for years.

"They're calling wondering, who do I need to grease? Who do I need to show our support to?" said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

None of this is to say the law was a mistake. Quite the opposite. Loyal readers know I support legalizing marijuana, including for recreational purposes. My goals for pot policy can be summarized in four words: good quality, reasonable prices.

Until that's achieved -- St. Pierre predicts it'll take a decade for public opinion to shift that far -- we must settle for small steps in the right direction.

Thus, I applaud the council, led by Health Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Public Safety Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), for pushing through a carefully crafted bill. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) plans to sign it soon. It'll take effect this fall, if all goes well.

To the extent there's a problem, the culprits are overwrought antidrug moralists in Congress. They'll have 30 working days after Fenty's signature to try to block the bill. Nobody expects them to succeed, but their mere presence means the measure is too cautious.

The biggest shortcoming is the ban on patients growing their own pot. That blocks a sure way to get it cheaply and easily. It significantly increases the risk of shortages.

This gets complicated because of great uncertainty over how many users there'll be. Catania estimates the number to be between 300 and 1,000. However, the view was unanimous among marijuana advocates whom I interviewed that the figure will be much higher, based on experience elsewhere.

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