D.C. medical marijuana backers still waiting

Demonstration planned at city hall to press leaders to start program

Two D.C. patients’ rights groups are decrying the absence of seeds in the ground to grow medical marijuana and a clear timetable for when patients can obtain the drug, though a full year has passed since Congress approved the program.

“The hardest part is just the waiting game,” said Nikolas Schiller, of the District of Columbia Patients’ Cooperative, one of the two groups.

The nonprofit group and Safe Access DC say city officials have moved too slowly since authorization — with repeated attempts to solidify the guidelines and no clear finish line.

“It sounds very nice and well and good,” Mr. Schiller said of the city’s efforts.“But the reality is there are people suffering.”

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and nonprofits are lining up to become legal growers and dispensers.

In protest, activists will take to the steps of the John A. Wilson Building Wednesday to make three demands: full implementation of the medical marijuana program, permission for patients to grow their own pot and the establishment of an affirmative defense clause for patients who get caught in the legal system.

Mr. Schiller says another issue is that Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other D.C. officials are laboring to “get it right” because they are wary of federal interference, considering District laws are subject to congressional approval and because marijuana use is still illegal under federal definitions.

That point was highlighted last month when the Justice Department reminded U.S. attorneys across the country that growing and selling marijuana remains illegal, despite a 2009 memo advising them not to target individuals acting in compliance “with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

Mr. Schiller says the foot-dragging could even cost him his job as a paid consultant for the cooperative. He says the cooperative cannot justify paying him while the program’s benchmarks are in limbo.

“Building trust is one of the most important aspects of this program,” he said, noting neighborhood commissioners offer input into where medical marijuana facilities can open. “And it’s difficult to be transparent with the community when you’re unclear about when things are going forward.”

Earlier this year, more than 80 separate entities expressed interest in growing or dispensing medical marijuana in the District through letters of intent to the D.C. Department of Health. Of the applicants who listed a cultivation or dispensary site, many of them had lined up property in Northeast, where industrial space is more plentiful.

Spokespersons for Mr. Gray and the Department of Health could not be reached for comment on the activists’ concerns or for information on when formal applications will be accepted.

The District has waited more than a dozen years for its medical marijuana program to get off the ground.

D.C. voters approved medical marijuana in a 1998 referendum, only to see Congress forbid the city from funding legalization efforts. The ban, known as the Barr Amendment, was lifted in 2009, clearing the way for the program’s implementation.

The letters of intent sent by an eclectic mix of business people, nonprofits and “green thumbs” based in the District and multiple states mark the first tangible progress on the program.

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