D.C. Council members pressed forward with plans to broadly expand access to medical marijuana in the nation’s capital Thursday, drawing praise from residents suffering from an array of conditions that they say should qualify them for legal use of the plant.
Under legislation that all 13 council members have pledged to support, the bill would strike from D.C. law a narrow list of four conditions — including AIDS and spasms — that qualify residents to apply for the legal purchase of marijuana. New guidelines would leave it up to D.C. doctors to decide whether a patient might benefit from marijuana.
The push to loosen the city’s medical marijuana program follows the council’s decision in March to eliminate all criminal penalties for possession of marijuana for personal use, replacing a potential one-year jail term with a fine of $25. (Smoking it in public could still draw a jail term of 60 days, similar to the penalty for public consumption of alcohol).
On paper, the proposed guidelines for writing recommendations for marijuana would make the city’s program among the most liberal nationwide. But several restrictions — including licensing each plant used for legal cultivation — would keep the program far more regulated than in states including California.
The District’s medical marijuana program launched slowly last year after being tied up by Congress for nearly a decade. But with bipartisan support on Capitol Hill now for looser medical marijuana laws, council members said they were confident that a broader law would pass muster with congressional overseers. Congress also shows no sign of stopping the District law to decriminalize marijuana. Without an act of Congress and the president, that should take effect next month.
To expedite passage of the legislation, the council’s Health Committee and its Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held a joint hearing Thursday and moved toward a full council vote that could come before a summer recess in July.
Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), chairman of the Health Committee, said that with just 400 patients in the District, or a few dozen a month, approved for the use of medical marijuana so far, the city’s year-old program has yet to become the benefit to the District’s 645,000 residents that lawmakers envisioned.
The committee also heard testimony on a companion bill by council member David Grosso (I-At Large) that would allow the city’s three current dispensaries, as well as those allowed to open in the future, to increase cultivation from a maximum of less than 100 plants to 500 each.
Grosso said the increased production would be key to creating enough marijuana so it could be manufactured into pills and liquids, which, among other uses, are the methods of ingestion preferred for children with debilitating epilepsy.
“If you push one button over here, you’re going to have an effect over there: We need to consider all of these issues together at once,” Grosso said.
The city’s health director, Joxel Garcia, said he supported giving doctors more flexibility and added that the Health Department had begun allowing patients to apply online for permission to purchase medical marijuana to help more benefit.
But he urged the council to move cautiously, both in ramping up production and raising expectations that marijuana can be a cure-all.
“The problem is, people come in thinking it is a panacea, and when it fails, they are angered,” Garcia said. He said the drug should be thought of as experimental because it lacks any FDA guidance for effective uses.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he did not think it was Garcia’s role or expertise to decide how many plants each cultivator should grow. Wells said supply and demand would dictate production.
Thursday’s debate took place as proponents of a measure to legalize possession of marijuana, including home cultivation, continued to gather signatures to place a measure on the District ballot Nov. 4. According to a recent Post poll, District residents support legalizing the drug for personal use by a margin of 2 to 1.