The District's medical marijuana program is still months away from sprouting, but some advocates already worry that there won't be enough cannabis to go around.
Prompting concerns about supply of the drug was a vote Jan. 17 by the D.C. Council that capped the number of cultivation centers that will be licensed to grow marijuana at six per ward - an effort to assuage fears that Ward 5 in Northeast was becoming a dumping ground for unwanted industries.
With most of the applicants proposing to do business in Ward 5, the zoning change effectively cut the number of candidates to run cultivation centers to seven - three fewer than the 10 that D.C. law allows.
Mike Liszewski, policy director for Americans for Safe Access, said concerns have been raised that the D.C. program, which has a 95-plant limit per registration, was too conservative to meet the estimated demand among patients.
"Limiting the number of cultivation sites will only exacerbate that problem," he said.
City legislators capped the number of plants a cultivation center may have at any time at 95 to keep it under the 100-plant threshold under federal law, which mandates a five-year prison sentence for those convicted of violation.
The limit is indicative of how careful the city has been in rolling out its program, hoping to avoid the legal stumbles that prompted federal prosecutors to roll back medical marijuana initiatives in states across the nation. Applicants to the D.C. program must sign a legal waiver that says they assume the risk of federal prosecution for growing or distributing marijuana and cannot hold the city liable for arrests.
But sometimes the essence of medical marijuana initiatives - providing relief to those in pain - is lost in the regulatory shuffle, Mr. Liszewski said.
"Lawmakers try to balance the lack of clarity from the federal government with the needs of patients," he said. "The unfortunate thing is they seem to err on the side of the federal government."
Montgomery Blair Sibley, an applicant with the Medicinal Marijuana Company of the District of Columbia, said each cultivation center is supposed to support about 100 patients, so the number of potential patients would decrease from 1,000 to 700 if the situation stands. Yet the city still could meet its goals over time.
"I understood the original plan to be a slow rollout to meet demand," Mr. Sibley said.
The D.C. Department of Health, which led the application-scoring process and sets deadlines for the program, has not announced whether it plans to change the registration process because of the council's action. It also did not respond to requests for comment on whether the supply of marijuana is expected to sync with expected demand from qualifying patients.
The diminished number of cultivation centers planned is based on the applications submitted to the health department. Twenty-six of the 28 applicantsto grow medical marijuana in the District proposed a site in Ward 5. The remaining two sites were on Benning Road in Ward 7 and in the Anacostia area of Ward 8. The Ward 8 site has not met the criteria for review by the city's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, the most local form of elected government in the District, and it has not been given the chance to submit a corrected application.
That leaves six centers, at most, in Ward 5 and the proposed site in Ward 7 that goes by the name Phyto Management.
The city will license up to five applicants who proposed dispensaries - sites where the drug is doled out to qualified patients - in locations across the District, including in Ward 5. Officials are scheduled to award registrations to cultivation centers and dispensaries by March 30 and May 4, respectively, although it is unclear when the operations will begin.
The council's compromise on facilities-per-ward arose when council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, and council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, a Democrat, took up the issue in an attempt to fill the leadership gap in Ward 5 left by former council member Harry Thomas Jr.
Thomas had raised concerns about the concentration of marijuana facilities in his ward - leading to a series of neighborhood meetings on the topic - before he resigned and pleaded guilty to stealing public funds and filing false tax returns.
The emergency legislation passed by the council this month also says any ward that accepts five cultivation centers cannot accept more than one dispensary.
The provision means that four applicants who proposed a dispensary site in Ward 5 - Capitol Dispensary, D.C. Alternative Therapy Center, Eagle Organics and Kahentakon Compassion Center - will vie for one slot if they meet preliminary specifications.
Roy Kime of Kahentakon is a city resident of 15 years who also proposed a cultivation center in Ward 5. As others have noted, he said that zoning regulations and the restrictions of the medical marijuana program directed most applicants to the ward.
If officials wanted to distribute cultivation across the city, they should have opened it up to spaces zoned for commercial use as well, he said.
"We weren't picking on Ward 5," said Mr. Kime, who lives in Ward 2. "I have a great relationship with the residents of Ivy City."
Mr. Kime said he is not sure whether his cultivation center application is still in the approval process. It was not among the initial seven forwarded to the ANCs for review and not on a list of those who may submit amended applications.
The council's actions could limit his chances on the dispensary side, Mr. Kime said. "I figured it's people we were competing with anyway."
Mr. Kime does have some criticism for the city.
The city government, he said, should have done more to assist D.C.-based applicants, much like it does with the Certified Business Enterprise system in awarding city contracts to D.C. companies and in employment initiatives that attempt to place city residents in public- and private-sector jobs around the Beltway.
A District-first approach may have whittled down the field in a more constructive manner.
"We are so city-focused with so many other important things," he said, "yet they want other people from other states to come in and grow cannabis."
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, said Friday that he does not recall any discussion of District-first provisions in the initial medical marijuana statute, but noted it is "always nice when it's District businesses and residents who are favored."
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