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

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010; B01

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.

-- Licensed users would be able to use medical marijuana only in their homes or a medical facility where they reside, if the facility approved.

-- No doctor would be allowed to locate an office at a dispensary, and dispensaries would be prohibited from marketing themselves to doctors.

-- Owners of marijuana businesses must be determined to be "of good character" and must not have been convicted of any felony or drug-related misdemeanor.

-- Dispensaries and cultivators must obtain approval for a security plan, must install a comprehensive video recording system, and cannot locate within 300 feet of a school or recreation center or within a residential area.

-- Dispensaries would be prohibited from selling alcohol or engaging in any other type of business.

Much as the liquor board can immediately shutter a bar or nightclub, it would be able close a dispensary if it were causing "immediate danger to the health and safety of the public." The chief of police would be able to shut down a dispensary for 96 hours.

Nickles said the regulations were written with an eye toward avoiding the problems seen in other states -- especially California, where lawmakers are trying to rein in a medical marijuana industry estimated to generate about $2 billion a year in sales. Choosing the liquor board to oversee the industry, he said, was part of that.

Dan Riffle, a lobbyist who tracks national cannabis trends for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, called the role of a liquor board in the District's proposed framework "novel." But, he said, "I'm not so much concerned with who is doing the regulating as what's in the regulations."

Turner said that when Congress is involved, the "who" matters.

"It gives our opponents, especially on Capitol Hill, reason to shut us down," he said. "They'll say, 'This isn't about patients, it's the liquor board doing it.' "

Catania was optimistic that the program might be modified during a 45-day review period, now underway.

"Generally speaking, I'm pleased," he said.

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