D.C. medical marijuana firms moving slowly through regulatory process

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Months after the D.C. government gave 10 firms the go-ahead to start growing medical marijuana and sell it to qualified patients within the city’s borders, none have acquired the regulatory documents needed to begin the program, city officials said.

The successful applicants for six cultivation centers and four dispensaries must apply for building permits, certificates of occupancy and business licenses before they register as part of the initiative to aid the sick and dying. Each of these documents would be issued by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

“As of this morning, we have not issued any certificates of occupancy to any of the approved medical marijuana cultivation centers or dispensaries,” DCRA spokesman Helder Gil said Monday. Each firm needs a certificate of occupancy to apply for a business license.

After an exhaustive review, the Department of Health in March selected the half-dozen cultivation centers for registration. In mid-June, officials approved four applicants who intend to register dispensaries, where the drug is doled out. Pressure is on the cultivation centers to establish the supply of medical marijuana before dispensaries can dole it out, but a precise timeline for the burgeoning program is still unclear.

Dr. Saul Levin, who recently took over as the city’s health director, said the program has “moved out of our area” and “into the regulatory side of getting this up and running.”

“I can’t even give you a date,” he told The Washington Times earlier this month. “In order to do this right, we don’t want to rush it.”

Patience has been a necessity when it comes to the District’s medical marijuana efforts, which city voters approved in 1998 before congressional interference barred the initiative for more than a decade. The D.C. Council passed legislation to authorize the program in 2010, setting in motion a series of regulations and painstaking rules for applicants as the city tries to avoid the legal pitfalls that have doomed medicinal marijuana operations in various states.

“No one would want to sacrifice doing this the right way,” said Corey Barnette, a principal at District Growers. “I’m happy the District is being cautious in rolling it out.”

Mr. Barnette’s firm is among five cultivation centers approved for registration in a maze of curved streets and four-way stops near New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Ward 5. He said his operation is winding up the construction, or “build out,” of its warehouse to make it suitable for marijuana cultivation and he hopes to apply for a certificate of occupancy by next week.

Some Ward 5 residents objected to the use of the Ivy City community as a de facto “dumping ground” for the program because of zoning restrictions in other parts of the District, prompting the D.C. Council to set limits on the number of medical marijuana centers per ward. While it is unclear how the centers will ultimately appear from the street, to date there is no outward sign of the marijuana program in the area marked by nondescript manufacturing operations.

Mr. Barnette said passers-by should not expect to notice anything. Unlike a dispensary, members of the public will not be moving in and out of the cultivation centers.

“There should be no reason why someone would put up an outdoor sign,” he said.

The only cultivation center outside of the Ward 5 cluster, Phyto Management LLC, estimated in its initial application that the business “will commence operations on July 3, 2012.” But city lawmakers threw a wrench in Phyto’s plans to open a center east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7 when it barred medical marijuana centers from opening in retail-priority areas, forcing its proprietor to search for a new location.

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