Medical marijuana is legal in 13 states. Will the nation's capital follow suit? The short answer is yes, but what remains unanswered is how and when.
That D.C. leaders are even considering the medical marijuana issue points to Congress and the White House — Congress because it removed prohibitions from the D.C. spending bill and the White House because it relaxed federal enforcement of medical marijuana policies. Supporters are awaiting the District's next move.
For them, the D.C. battle began in 1998, when voters approved the Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative, and ended when President Obama signed the D.C. appropriations bill in December 2009.
Longtime advocates, including the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), other gay rights groups and the Libertarian Party anticipate elected D.C. officials to follow the lead of such states as Alaska, California, Montana and Oregon and enact the 1998 city measure into law.
Although marijuana is a federally controlled Schedule I drug, 13 states have legalized its use for medical purposes. In addition, two states — Arizona and Maryland — have laws that favor medical marijuana but do not legalize it. Maryland passed a law in 2003 that allows defendants to use a medical defense in court, and Arizona has allowed physicians to prescribe marijuana since 1996. And on Monday night, New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill that would allow chronically ill patients access to marijuana for medical reasons.
In the District, the Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative of 1998 would, among other things, decriminalize use for patients for certain "debilitating conditions," including AIDS and glaucoma, decriminalize possession laws for patients and caregivers, and require city agencies to issue identification, and develop regulations for usage and distribution.
The 13 states that currently permit marijuana smoking for medical reasons vary in the amounts a patient may legally possess. Montana, for example, only permits up to one ounce, while Oregon allows 24 ounces. California is in the middle with eight ounces.
Regulating the sale and distribution are areas of serious contention for lawmakers and supporters alike. In Los Angeles, for example, lawmakers are wrangling over both issues even though California had the first-in-the-nation successful marijuana initiative in 1996. One of the stickiest points is who can grow and distribute marijuana in California, where patients can even order their drug by phone or fax.
The number of dispensaries is a newsmaking issue as well, as the debate wages over which city is America's "Cannabis Capital" — Los Angeles or Denver. Denver, which has a population of 598,707, reportedly has one dispensary for every 1,535 residents, compared with Los Angeles, which has a population of 4 million and a dispensary for every 4,065 residents.
Where D.C. leaders stand on the medical marijuana issue is an open book.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has supported medical marijuana and decriminalizing marijuana laws since at least 2000, when he ran for and won the Ward 4 D.C. Council seat.
In a D.C. Council candidates' questionnaire by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, question No. 7 asked Mr. Fenty, "Will you oppose Bill 13-240 which would make possession and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes a felony?" Mr. Fenty answered, "Yes."
The District's most-senior council member, Jack Evans of Ward 2, also is a longtime supporter of medical marijuana. He, too, responded to question No. 7: "Yes, I oppose impediments to the efforts to permit the distribution of medical marijuana. As the first elected official to support the medical marijuana initiative, I well know the value of marijuana in combating nausea and wasting syndrome in people living with HIV/AIDS and other terminal illnesses. My efforts on this issue began with my work with Steve Smith in 1994 to secure passage of a 'Sense of the Council' resolution on this issue. When this effort was replaced by the Initiative campaigns, I threw my support to those activities.
"I asked many questions about how/if Bill 13-240 would negatively impact on medical marijuana efforts. I received repeated assurances it would not since the emphasis of Bill 13-240 was to curb distribution and the amounts were set at a sufficiently high level so as to target dealers and not everyday users. However, I know 13-240 may still be harmful to the medical marijuana initiatives. As such, it will have to be revisited to ensure it does not hamper this effort."
Council member David Catania, chairman of the council's health committee, which has policy and regulatory oversight, also supports medicinal use of marijuana. He also agrees with D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, who wants to move cautiously and deliberately.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who succeeded in ridding the D.C. bill of riders that restricted the use of public dollars on medical marijuana, needle-exchange programs and abortions, called the removal of the prohibitions historic and predicted that Congress, which has a constitutional prerogative regarding D.C. budget matters, won't revisit the marijuana issue.
D.C. officials said that at this juncture, there is much to ponder. In addition to federal and distribution issues, authorities are reviewing tax, penalty and consumption regulations. They also are reconsidering licensing laws and which illnesses should be considered "debilitating" since the 1998 initiative.
Several council members said they are not sure how to proceed.
"I don't know what the next steps should be," said council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.
Mr. Nickles, whose job is to ensure that the District's next steps pass legal muster, said he and his staff are studying the 1998 measure. "It's a complex issue."