- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

Medical marijuana is coming to the District of Columbia - but still with too many restrictions for some pot advocates.

Now that Congress has lifted its decade-old hold on the measure, legislation to implement a 1998 voter-passed referendum is backed by 10 of the city’s 13 D.C. Council members and seems sure to pass.

Council committees and city officials are wrestling with an armful of questions about how the law will work in practice - especially the question of where the licensed dispensaries that will sell the drug can be located, and who will be allowed to own and operate them. And opponents are calling for Congress to block the measure, as it can do under long-standing federal powers over D.C. affairs.

Marijuana advocates are pushing for changes in the current council proposal, which bans anyone with even a misdemeanor drug conviction from owning or working in a dispensary, and says they must be at least 1,000 feet from any school or youth center.

Finding a site that meets that criterion in a dense urban setting like the District is like “looking for a needle in a haystack,” said entrepreneur Alan Amsterdam, co-owner of Capitol Hemp - a store in Adams Morgan that sells products made from hemp, a fiber manufactured from the non-psychoactive parts of the cannabis plant.

Mr. Amsterdam - a native Washingtonian who in 1998 opened the first American-operated marijuana “coffee shop” in the Netherlands, where pot has been legal for more than 20 years - said he plans to apply for a license to run a dispensary and has been scouting potential sites.

“Most of the options are going to be in the Northeast, the New York Avenue area,” said Mr. Amsterdam, adding that he plans to apply for a license no matter how the law turns out, but he is lobbying for changes in the bill.

He said that current proposals for regulating gun shops in the District would mandate that they must be at least 350 feet from any school.

“That doesn’t make any sense. How can you say it’s OK to put a shop which sells deadly weapons closer to a school than one which is dispensing medicine?” asked Mr. Amsterdam, who said the same 350-foot rule would significantly increase the number of potential dispensary sites.

Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary - one of the two panels considering the bill - said he did not buy that comparison.

“I don’t think there is agreement on that issue,” he said. He noted it was not yet clear whether patients would be allowed to smoke their marijuana in the dispensaries. The location question “depends on the rules for the dispensaries,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Mr. Mendelson added it was his “inclination” to retain the ban in the bill on people with misdemeanor drug convictions owning or working in dispensaries - another provision marijuana advocates oppose.

Mr. Amsterdam said that people with misdemeanor convictions for violence or fraud are free to set up under the law.

“That is very troubling … you are punishing people in the cannabis community,” he said, adding, “You need master growers” to cultivate medical-grade pot and that people with that kind of experience have often fallen afoul of the law.

“I don’t follow that argument,” responded Mr. Mendelson, adding that the provision was intended “to make sure the criminal element cannot get involved” in supplying medical marijuana. “I don’t see why a person with a criminal conviction is the best person for the job” of running a dispensary.

Medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access supports a ban only on those with convictions for crimes of violence.

Steph Shearer, the group’s executive director, says the council members are being “very thoughtful in their approach” to drafting legislation. “They are very aware of the influence that Congress” and other federal organs have in the city, and “they want to make this work.”

Mr. Mendelson said he had not encountered any opposition to the law as a whole, and said he expects the D.C. Council to pass a final bill with all the details “within two months.”

“The concern has been about where to draw the lines,” he said, noting that the proposed law employs a narrower definition of who can qualify as a medical marijuana patient than many jurisdictions have used.

The bill states that, in order to qualify, patients must suffer from a “serious medical condition” that is “chronic or long-lasting,” “debilitating,” and either causes “intractable pain which does not respond to ordinary medical or surgical measures,” or “cannot be effectively treated by any ordinary medical or surgical measure.”

Any D.C. law would not supersede federal law, which restricts marijuana use and possession without any medical exceptions. This discrepancy already has caused jurisdictional issues in other cities and states that have allowed medical marijuana, but could pose particularly acute difficulties in the District, large parts of which are owned by the federal government and where many federal law-enforcement agencies patrol the streets and sites.

“D.C. is unique in this respect and faces an issue that no other jurisdiction does,” said Mr. Amsterdam, adding that advocates were striving to get lawmakers’ attention on the issue.

Americans for Safe Access is calling on the council to issue special training materials for police officers about the new law.

Opponents of the measure say that however the law is written, it is the thin end of a fat drug-legalization wedge and should not pass.

“This is not only a stupid and dangerous mistake, but a transparent ploy to legalize a dangerous drug,” said John Walters, the Bush administration’s drug czar and now executive vice president at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“Smoked marijuana is not a medicine,” he said. “It cannot pass any of the tests we set down for other medical treatments” like double-blind drug-efficacy studies, and “there are no warnings about the known side-effects.”

He called it “inexcusable” that federal officials had not publicly opposed the D.C. bill. “National officials responsible for the integrity of our drug laws, our legal system [and] our medical regulatory regime have maintained a deafening silence,” he said.

“I hope Congress will stop it,” he said.

Under the 1973 Home Rule Act, which established the current D.C. government structure, all laws passed by the council are subject to a 30-day congressional review and can be blocked.

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