Liquor regulators may help oversee D.C. medical marijuana program

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010

District liquor regulators will play a lead role in the city's new medical marijuana program when it debuts Jan. 1, according to draft rules issued Friday by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Under the regulations, the city health department would be responsible for registering legal marijuana users. But the licensing and oversight of the facilities that will grow and distribute medical cannabis would be handled by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and its enforcement arm, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. The prospect of having the same regulators overseeing medical marijuana and liquor stores concerns advocates who have fought to have cannabis recognized as a medical treatment, not just as a drug for recreational use.

Last year, Congress removed a longstanding budget restriction that prevented city officials from implementing a medical-marijuana initiative that voters passed in 1998. City policymakers since have moved to create a tightly regulated system that would forestall future congressional interference.

Wayne Turner, who co-wrote the 1998 initiative, said Friday that he was glad to see the city move forward but was "completely blindsided" by the role of alcohol regulators. "Dispensaries are the front line, and the liquor board is completely inappropriate to run this program," he said. "Are we talking about medical marijuana Jell-O shots here?"

Turner's concerns were echoed, in somewhat less alarming terms, by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who said his "preference" would be to have the health department, which regulates pharmacies, oversee the program.

But Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said Friday that the liquor regulators are most ready for the challenge of overseeing a new and potentially troublesome program. "They do a terrific job in enforcement and inspection," he said. "It was my impression in talking to them that they could do this job."

Charles Brodsky, chairman of the alcohol board, said the challenge of regulating marijuana is more analogous to alcohol than to prescription drugs. "We oversee a highly regulated product in the stream of commerce, and I think we do it pretty well," he said, adding that he and other board officials had spent "hundreds of hours" researching regulations from across the country.

Nickles added that having the liquor agency handle the program is the most cost-effective option because it has a corps of administrators and inspectors already in place.

The program could be a major revenue generator for an ailing city budget. As many as five dispensaries would pay $10,000 per year to register; up to 10 "cultivation centers," allowed to grow 95 plants at a time, would pay $5,000 per year. In addition, certain corporate officials would be required to pay a $200 annual registration fee. Managers would pay $150 and employees $75.

Yearly registration as a medical marijuana user or caregiver would cost $100; those earning less than twice the federal poverty level, or about $22,000, would pay $25 and would be eligible for subsidized marijuana on a sliding scale. Cultivators and dispensaries would be required to devote 2 percent of their revenue to those subsidies.

The regulatory framework, laid out in an eight-page executive order and 87 pages of administrative rules, describes the cultivation, distribution and transportation of legal marijuana in great detail. Under the proposed regulations:

-- Doctors prescribing marijuana must be in a "bona fide physician-patient relationship with the qualifying patient" and must have done a physical examination no more than 90 days before prescribing marijuana.

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