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First marijuana growers in D.C. clear regulatory hurdles

Documents put city one stop closer to legal medical use

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This time, there will be plants.

Fifteen years after voters gave the green-light to a medical marijuana program in the nation's capital, a pair of locations approved to grow or sell the drug have cleared regulatory hurdles and will set up shop a few months into the new year, according to city officials.

A cultivation site in the Northeast quadrant of the city obtained its certificate of occupancy this month, meaning it can grow marijuana once the D.C. Department of Health completes a final inspection. It is one of six sites approved to grow the drug for medical purposes before it is sold at one of five dispensaries scattered across the city. One such dispensary, located just a mile north of the Capitol, also obtained its occupancy documents.

The development is significant because it means marijuana will be available to qualified patients after years of congressional interference and local rule-making. The application process among interested entrepreneurs took more than a year, and the majority of approved cultivation centers clustered in Northeast and dispensaries scattered across the District are still building out their sites and acquiring the necessary permits and business licenses.

"While the process has taken longer than anyone would have liked, I am pleased that we now appear to be only a few short months from the existence of a responsible, well-regulated medical marijuana program," D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent who played a key role in the 2010 law that authorized the program, said in a statement announcing the developments.

Since 1996, when California voters approved medical marijuana in their state, 17 more states and the District have approved a program that uses the drug to aid the sick and dying. Voters in Massachusetts approved a program in November, although Arkansas voters rejected a similar ballot question.

Maryland does not have a medical marijuana program, but people can cite medical necessity as a defense in cases involving the drug.

While the District rolls out medical marijuana in the neighborhoods that surround the White House and the seat of Congress, the federal government still considers it illegal to manufacture or possess marijuana.

Federal officials are also sending mixed signals on how they will enforce the law. 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" but advised U.S. attorneys not to target individuals acting in compliance with "existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

Federal prosecutors have tended to look 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 in the summer of 2011 signaled that law enforcement is not about to acquiesce to those who cultivate or sell marijuana.

The government's approach to the drug was further complicated this year, when voters in Washington state and Colorado legalized the possession of marijuana in small amounts for recreational use by people at least 21 years old.

In the District, applicants to the city's program had 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.

The principals at Holistic Remedies, the cultivation firm ahead of the pack of approved applicants in the District, declined to speak about its plans for getting plants into soil at their site on Fenwick Street Northeast.

Department of Health spokeswoman Najma Roberts said the department "is working with Holistic Remedies to set up a pre-opening inspection date."

The dispensary on its way to operation, listed in city documents as VentureForth LLC, is located on North Capitol Street between New York and Florida avenues.

While the product's supply chain is set up — plants must be at least 60 days old before they are harvested — demand in the city is yet to be determined.

The city's health department will provide forms in early January to physicians who want to recommend qualified patients for medical marijuana. Patients can begin to register with health officials on or about Jan. 28 and must obtain a written recommendation from a doctor within 90 days. They also must register with a specific dispensary, although that process is contingent on dispensaries received their registration from the city, which will begin on or about Jan. 15.

Officials said more than 100 physicians are interested in the program, although the roster of patients is still unclear, said Brendan Williams-Kief, a spokesman for Mr. Catania.

"It's a new program," he said, "and people have to hear about it, ask their doctor about it and get the recommendation from their doctor."

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