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

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, May 13, 2010; B01

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.

"The demand out there is huge," said Caren Woodson, director of government affairs of Americans for Safe Access. She said more than 15,000 District residents suffer from cancer, MS or HIV/AIDS, all of which are included on the law's list of conditions that potentially qualify people for medical marijuana.

That number doesn't include people with glaucoma, which is also on the list, or other chronic, debilitating illnesses that the D.C. Health Department could add to the roster.

Then there's the limit of 95 plants per licensed grower. Each plant can support one or at most two patients. Based on a conservative assumption of 1,000 users, that means at least five to 10 cultivators are needed. If there are 5,000 users, then the number of growers rises to 25 to 50.

Who will they be? The application rules are strict and prohibit felons or individuals with misdemeanor drug convictions. Presumably that means area dealers and growers who apply will be ones too smart or lucky to have been caught.

Finally, there's the issue of where to locate the growers and dispensaries. There should be some interesting community battles, as the law assigns "great weight" to views of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions on deciding the sites.

St. Pierre predicted the grow houses will be "in Northeast by the railroad tracks. It's going to be in the same places where we put other problematic adult commerce, like strip clubs."

At least there shouldn't be any problem finding people hoping to do the job. It's easy for a grower to make six figures a year after the initial start-up cost, according to activists and other experienced observers.

"The average person, if they were even somewhat competent, they'd be able to make something like a hundred grand a year," said Conor, 30, of Northwest, who plans to apply both to grow marijuana and operate a dispensary. He declined to give his last name for fear of angering his employer.

Conor said he grew marijuana until seven years ago, and the proceeds helped finance his college education. Although eager to resume, he is unhappy about the bureaucracy.

"I have a kind of an individualist, libertarian slant on it," Conor said. "Governments tend to put these barriers to entry up and hurt small business."

Maybe that's how the District should get conservatives in Congress to back off. Make it about excessive government regulation. Free markets, more weed.

If you're interested, my earlier column urging legalization of marijuana was published Sept. 13, 2009. I think pot should be treated much like alcohol -- regulated, taxed and prohibited for minors.

McCartney discusses local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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