A year after the District legalized medical marijuana, nobody is legally growing or selling it. Patients once thought that they could be getting the drug by early 2011, but bureaucratic delays and the city’s caution in implementing its drug law have caused some would-be patients and entrepreneurs to fume.
But things appear to be picking up. District regulators are forging ahead despite a recent Justice Department memo that has worried coordinators of medical-marijuana programs nationwide, and city officials said Tuesday that dozens of individuals and businesses will be allowed to apply for licenses to operate five dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers.
City officials expect patients to have access to medicinal marijuana — which advocates say can relieve pain and stimulate the appetite — by May 2012.
“This is a very complicated process,” said D.C. Health Director Mohammad N. Akhter. “The community should be very pleased that we are moving forward with this and are doing things in a way that will make sure the program will be here to stay.”
Still, some people are skeptical. District officials have already missed a launch goal set when the law went into effect July 27, 2010.
“I don’t believe they’re going to be ready to deliver” by May, said Nancy Miranda, 37, a Columbia Heights resident who said she wants to use prescription marijuana for her migraine headaches. “If they do, they’ll surprise me and, of course, make me very happy.”
Akhter said recent changes in the program — including the decision by Mayor Vincent Gray (D) in April to have the Health Department run the application process — caused some delays.
“Once you move something like this, you need to do new rules and regulations and it needs to go to the council,” Akhter said. “Considering all of those things, it has moved very expeditiously.”
Akhter would not identify the approved applicants — they are scheduled to be announced Friday — but he expects candidates to file proposals by Sept. 9. A six-member panel — a patient advocate and representatives from five city departments — will review the proposals with commissioners of affected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions over three months, he said.
Akhter said that he expects license awardees to be named by year’s end and that marijuana should be ready to be dispensed by next May. “When this program gets implemented, it’s going to be the tightest-controlled program in the United States,” he said.
Still, some possible participants — such as Nikolas Schiller — consider the city’s pace “glacial.” Schiller’s group, D.C. Patients’ Cooperative, identified potential cultivation and dispensary sites in the city after the law passed.
Concerned about the program’s pace, the cooperative did not sign any leases, and many of those sites are no longer available. Schiller, the only paid staff member, was laid off by the group’s investors.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said that although he wants the process to move quickly, he appreciates the city’s deliberate approach, even as some community activists have become “impatient.”
Being careful is important, marijuana policy experts say, because recent raids and Justice Department communications indicate that the federal government might still choose to prosecute state-licensed medical-marijuana operators.
For some experts, a Justice Department memo written in June by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole suggests that prosecutors can target state-licensed dispensaries and cultivation centers because, Cole wrote, people “in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities,” violate federal law, regardless of state law.
District officials “should be concerned” about the memo, said Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist who supports the legalization of marijuana.
Justice Department spokeswoman Jessica A. Smith said in an e-mail that the memo “reinforces” departmental drug policy “in light of changing state laws and increased commercial cultivation of marijuana for purported medical purposes.”
National responses to the memo have varied. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has continued a statewide hold on issuing dispensary licenses, saying that the memo “offers little more than continued confusion and doublespeak.” And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced a plan last week to create six new dispensaries.
Beatrice “B.B.” Otero, D.C. deputy mayor for health and human services, said in a statement that the Gray administration does not want to “put anything forward that could jeopardize the implementation of the law.”
City and Justice Department officials have met to discuss Cole’s memo, according to authorities. Otero said Gray thinks that the city’s program will allow licensed operators to work “in a safe and medically appropriate manner.”
The process continues on Friday. Akhter said the application will ask for prospective locations and plans for on-site security and public education about the drug.
E-mails, interviews and letters of intent submitted by prospective applicants provide some ideas about where facilities might go. Some suggested sites in warehouses near busy thoroughfares; others targeted commercial districts across the city.
O. Wesley Martin wants to run a dispensary and cultivation center in the bustling H Street NE corridor. In an e-mail, Martin said that he has met with area business owners and that “everyone is anxiously awaiting my debut.”
Some are not, however. “We’re against that. We’re for Jesus,” Anthony Chloe, manager of a Salvation Army thrift store, said when told of the possibility of a medical-marijuana facility nearby.
But Jonathan de la Cruz, 23, is happy that the District has made progress.
De la Cruz — paralyzed from the chest down after he was shot in February 2009 — said he buys marijuana illegally to ease leg spasms. A Hyattsville resident, he said he plans to move to the District and then obtain a prescription for marijuana.
De la Cruz said he knows what he is doing is illegal, but he agreed to tell his story because he thinks medical marijuana is much-needed by those with severe ailments and disabilities.
“Let’s speed up the process and make sure we get there,” he said. “There are people who need it.”