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D.C. Council reaches compromise on medical marijuana facilities

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The D.C. Council struck a deal on Tuesday to avoid the clustering of medical marijuana facilities in a single part of the city, grandfathering in applicants who got preliminary approval to grow the drug in Ward 5 but potentially altering the plans of companies who hoped to join them in the industrial slice of Northeast.

Emergency legislation caps the number of cultivation centers in any single ward at six. Any ward that accepts five cultivations centers cannot accept more than one dispensary, a site where the drug is doled out to qualified patients.

While broadly written, the legislation addresses the loud concerns of residents in Ward 5, who feared they would shoulder the lion's share of the medical marijuana program because zoning and security restrictions prompted many medical marijuana entrepreneurs to seek space in warehouses near Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue.

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.

"We voted for the referendum, we didn't vote to put them all in one place," council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, said Tuesday.

Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, forged a compromise from the dais with council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat who lives in Ward 5 and wanted to cap the number of cultivation centers in any ward at five.

Mr. Orange has spoken openly about the concerns of Ward 5 in the days since its council member, Harry Thomas Jr., resigned in disgrace this month and pleaded guilty to stealing city funds.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown signed onto Mr. Orange's bill, noting "the residents of Ward 5 have spoken loudly, that they don't want every single facility in their ward," Mr. Brown said.

The city's Department of Health has rolled out its medical marijuana program in a steady and tightly regulated manner. It is entering the final phase of the application process before awarding up to 10 cultivation registrations and five dispensary registrations.

As it stands, the emergency legislation could prevent the city from awarding more than eight cultivation registrations, because all but a pair of applicants, one each in wards 7 and 8, have proposed sites in Ward 5.

Wavering stances from federal drug enforcement officials have put marijuana programs around the country on uncertain ground. The council's action could make "a tenuous situation even more tenuous," as Mr. Catania put it from the dais.

Mr. Catania signaled he would only support an emergency bill that prohibits any more medical marijuana facilities from entering Ward 5 than those that have received preliminary approval.

"There's a balance that needs to take place," Mr. Catania said. "And I tried to strike that balance today by saying we'll accept those that have followed the process lawfully and we'll then put the brakes on any additional ones."

The emergency bill could have an averse effect on cultivation applicants waiting to see if their sites in Ward 5 are approved, as well as a number of dispensary applicants who will likely vie over just one allotted spot in the ward.

"It negatively impacts us because we were a de facto cooperative of five growers in one warehouse," said Montgomery Blair Sibley, whose Medicinal Marijuana Cooperative of the District of Columbia and four sub-tenants are awaiting preliminary approval. "They can't take our money and applications and a year of our time and then change the rules after the fact."

Mr. Barry tried to restrict the number of registrations each company should receive under the program to one each, citing "fairness," yet his measure failed.

Four of the seven applications that have been forwarded to the Advisory Neighborhoods Commissions for the cultivation of marijuana are from two companies, District Growers LLC and the Montel Williams-affiliated Abatin Wellness Center.

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