District patients shouldn't expect legal sale of marijuana until early 2011

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

District leaders say it will be months before the city begins allowing the sale of medical marijuana, even though the law authorizing up to eight dispensaries took effect Tuesday after the Democratic-controlled Congress declined to intervene.

The delay is driven by a lack of detail about how the city will operate the program, which includes a first-in-the-nation provision requiring dispensaries to price the marijuana on a sliding scale so the city's poorest patients can obtain medicinal pot for free.

The administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) will draft regulations to license dispensaries, track doctors and users, and identify where to allow the wholesale production of marijuana. Health Department officials and Attorney General Peter Nickles said Tuesday they expect a draft of the regulations to be made public next week. The rules would then undergo a public comment and review period, which could take months.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee, said he does not expect the first dispensaries to open until at least early next year. "I know people are eager for this go to forward, but I think we have to do this judiciously and slowly and carefully," Catania said.

Catania said he expects the Fenty administration to formally solicit bids in the fall to operate the dispensaries, which can be run by nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Winning bidders, he said, would ideally have experience growing medical marijuana and would be able to comply with rigorous security procedures.

The law also requires dispensaries to set aside a portion of their proceeds to subsidize the cost of the drug for low-income patients. Other patients will have to pay market value for the drug as well as a 6 percent sales tax to the city.

Distributors will be limited to growing no more than 95 marijuana plants at a given location, an apparent effort to meet a federal law that heightens penalties on anyone arrested with at least 100 plants.

After the Health Department licenses the dispensaries and cultivation centers, zoning objections from residents could further delay implementation. The law, for instance, calls for not allowing dispensaries within 300 feet of a school.

The council approved the initiative in May, and under home rule, Congress had 30 legislative days to review it. The measure became law after Congress finished its business Monday night because the House and Senate declined to intervene, according to a statement from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

With Congress staying out of the issue, medical marijuana advocates called the enactment of the law a "historic" victory for their movement.

"By allowing this law to take effect, Congress is actually taking a positive step towards sensible medical marijuana laws that serve to better the best interests of seriously ill patients," said Mike Meno of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Yet medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and, with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration headquartered in the Washington region, some advocates remain nervous about a possible federal response.

Officials with the DEA were not available to comment Tuesday. But Catania said he is encouraged by an Obama administration-issued directive from the Department of Veterans Affairs allowing patients at VA hospitals and clinics to have access to medical marijuana in the 14 states where it is legal. Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also told federal prosecutors to discontinue pursuing cases against medical marijuana patients who abide by local law.

The law caps a years-long struggle to act on a 1998 referendum in which 69 percent of District residents voted in favor of medical marijuana. Until last year, Congress had blocked the city from enacting the referendum.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said his organization will continue lobbying city officials to also allow patients to grow their own marijuana.

An advisory committee is studying the idea, but Catania said he worries that home cultivation will lead to abuse and "criminal activity."

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