Medical marijuana proceeds in D.C. as feds reconsider enforcement

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The District passed its first milestone in selecting who gets coveted licenses for the city’s burgeoning medical marijuana program — even as the federal government takes a second look at its hands-off approach to those who grow and sell the drug for patient use.

More than 80 people or businesses applied to cultivate or dispense medical marijuana through letters of intent submitted to the Department of Health. The applicants range from entrepreneurial lawyers and “green thumbs” in the District to medical marijuana business veterans from states as far away as Colorado and Montana.

The completion of the first step should allow the city to kick off the long-awaited program in earnest, joining 16 states in legalizing use for qualified patients.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other D.C. officials were wary of federal interference in their medical marijuana plans because the District’s laws are subject to congressional approval and because marijuana use is still illegal under federal definitions.

A 2009 memo, issued by U.S. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, reminded federal prosecutors that “no state can authorize violations of federal law” while also advising U.S. attorneys not to target individuals acting in compliance “with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

Federal prosecutors have “basically looked the other way” in states that legalized medical marijuana, but a letter sent from the Department of Justice to U.S. attorneys across the country on Wednesday has signaled that law enforcement is not acquiescing to those who cultivate or sell marijuana, according to a D.C. government source familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

The U.S. Attorney for the District has not issued any such warnings so far, and is “studying the issue to see what input we can provide on the subject,” said Bill Miller, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ron Machen.

A congressional rider known as the Barr Amendment had banned the city from funding legalization efforts since 1998, when 69 percent of voters cast ballots approving the use of medical marijuana in the District. It was lifted in 2009, clearing the way for the program’s implementation.

The mayor, a Democrat, issued rules in April that require persons interested in cultivating or dispensing medical marijuana in the District to send notification by June 17 to the Health Regulation and Licensing Administration, a branch of the city health department, ahead of a more formal application.

Despite ongoing legal ambiguity, medical marijuana applicants looking to cash in, or at least support those in need, are hoping for a piece of the D.C. market. Sporting business names that range from the general, “Organic Wellness,” to the creative, “Luscious Leaves” and “Emerald Chalice,” to the enigmatic, “Clique of Aces,” the bevy of applicants are hoping to nab permits for 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries.

A response to a request through the Freedom of Information Act shows 82 separate applicants for the program, many of them asking for permits to both cultivate and dispense the leafy drug.

A majority of them, 47, listed mailing addresses in the District in their letters to the health department. Other applicants were from Maryland (18), Virginia (7), New York (3), New Jersey (2), and one each from California, Colorado and Montana.

A few of the out-of-state applicants boasted experience in medical marijuana where it is already legal. A spokeswoman for the health department could not be reached for comment on whether experienced growers and sellers would gain preference over applicants originating in the District.

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.

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 — will score each of the eventual applications based on a 250-point scale that examines criteria such as security and staffing at their facilities, their overall business plans and the opinions of local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

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