According to political leaders in the District of Columbia, it will be months before D.C. begins allowing the sale of medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries, even though the law authorizing up to eight of the pot shops took effect Tuesday after the Democratic-controlled Congress declined to intervene.
The delay is caused by a lack of detail about how the city will operate the program, which includes a very cool, first-in-the-nation provision requiring dispensaries to price their marijuana on a sliding scale so the city’s poorest patients can get their medicinal cannabis for free, reports Tim Craig at The Washington Post
Council member David A. Catania, chairman of the Health Committee, said he doesn’t expect the first dispensaries to open until early next year, and that would be a best-case scenario.
“I know people are eager for this to go forward, but I think we have to do this judiciously and slowly and carefully,” Catania said.
The administration of Democratic Mayor Adrian M. Fenty will come up with regulations to license the pot dispensaries, track authorizing doctors and authorized users, and identify where to allow the wholesale cultivation of marijuana.
Health Department officials, along with D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, said Tuesday they expect a draft of the regulations to be made public next week. The rules will then undergo a period of public comment and review, which could take months.
|Photo: David Catania
|D.C. Council member David Catania: “I know people are eager for this to go forward, but I think we have to do this judiciously and slowly and carefully.”
Catania expects the Fenty administration to formally solicit bids this fall to operate the dispensaries, which can be run by either nonprofit or for-profit organizations.
Winning bidders, according to Catania, would ideally already have experience growing medical marijuana and would be able to comply with “rigorous safety procedures.”
D.C.’s medical marijuana law also requires dispensaries to set aside a portion of their proceeds to subsidize the cost of pot for low-income patients. Other patients will have to pay market value for cannabis, as well as a 6 percent sales tax to the city.
Cultivators will be limited to growing no more than 95 marijuana plants at any given location, apparently to avoid a federal law under which mandatory minimum prison sentences kick in at the 100-plant mark.
Even after the Health Department licenses the dispensaries and cultivation centers, zoning objections from uptight residents could further delay implementation. For example, the law prohibits dispensaries from opening within 300 feet of schools.
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 both the House and Senate declined to intervene.
With Congress staying out of it, medical marijuana activists said enactment of the law, first approved by 69 percent of D.C. voters in a referendum way back in 1998, a “historic victory” for the movement. Until last year, Congress had blocked the city from enacting the referendum.
“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
Medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and with the Drug Enforcement Administration headquartered in the D.C. region, some advocates are nervous about a possible DEA response, despite the fact that Obama’s Justice Department has announced it is backing off on dispensary raids in areas where medicinal cannabis is legal.
Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told federal prosecutors to discontinue pursuing cases against medical marijuana patients and providers who abide by local laws.
D.C.’s medical marijuana law, like New Jersey’s, unfortunately does not allow home cultivation by patients.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said DPA will continue lobbying D.C. officials to allow patients to grow their own cannabis.
An advisory committee is studying the idea, but Catania claimed he was worried that home cultivation will lead to abuse and “criminal activity.”