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D.C. to tap growers of medical marijuana

Panel winnowing field of applicants

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The District of Columbia's health department is expected within the next few days to give its first indication of who qualifies to grow medical marijuana in the nation's capital, a significant step in a program aimed at comforting the sick and dying that is more than a dozen years in the making.

A panel of health, regulatory and law enforcement officials tasked with choosing the top 20 out of 28 applications to open cultivation centers in the District is scheduled to complete its initial review by Friday and provide notice to qualifying applicants and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the relevant areas by Jan. 4, according to a schedule from the D.C. Health Regulation and Licensing Administration.

Those seeking to dispense the drug will receive the results of similar initial review by the end of the January. Seventeen applicants are vying for the top 10 spots, though one has reportedly withdrawn.

After the initial review Friday of the cultivation centers, the panel will whittle the pools down to 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries to start the program. The panel will take the ANCs' opinions into account and make its final recommendations to D.C. Department of Health Director Mohammad Akhter. The agency will announce on March 2 and March 30 who is eligible for the cultivation registrations and dispensary registrations, respectively.

The city's series of benchmarks shows the program is entering the homestretch and should reach fruition by this spring, though it has been vulnerable to delays and false starts in the past.

The District approved its program in a referendum in 1998, yet congressional intervention forced it to wait for more than a decade to move on the initiative. Now D.C. officials are rolling out their licensing program in a careful manner, hoping to avoid the legal stumbles that prompted federal prosecutors to roll back similar programs in states across the country.

In the city's application materials, officials inserted a section that requires applicants to state in writing that they assume the risk of federal prosecution for growing or distributing the drug and that they cannot hold the city liable for arrests.

"I hope that they do go forward, and patients will be able to get their medicine after all these years," said Nikolas Schiller, a steering committee member for medical marijuana advocacy group Safe Access D.C.

There are pitfalls to even minor delays, he added, because patients are suffering in the meantime and applicants may be paying rent on their cultivation-site leases with no profitable return while they await approval.

Many of the cultivation centers are expected to be clustered in Northeast around the Ivy City section of Ward 5. Cultivation centers must be 300 feet from schools and recreation centers and meet certain zoning requirements, which narrowed applicants' options and explains why they are clustered in one industrial area of the city.

A panel of five members — one each from the Department of Health, Metropolitan Police Department, Office of the Attorney General, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and a consumer or patient advocate — is scoring each of the applications based on a 250-point scale that examines criteria such as security and staffing at their facilities and their overall business plans.

Besides community approval, cultivation centers must meet tight restrictions on size, a stringent 95-plant allotment, staffing and lighting, in addition to the buffer zones between cultivation centers and schools.

An applicant must be at least 21 years old and not been convicted of any felonies or misdemeanor drug crimes.

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