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D.C. government program to subsidize pot for poor patients

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A proposed first-in-the-nation government program would require medical marijuana dispensaries in the District to put aside 2 percent of their profits in order to subsidize pot purchases for poor patients.

Under the regulatory proposal, dispensaries would give at least a 20 percent discount on marijuana to low-income people at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Clinics often offer lower prices to poor patients, and states that allow medical marijuana often encourage discounts for low-income patients. But Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said no state has inserted this type of provision into regulations.

"This rule is totally unprecedented in the medical marijuana community," he said.

Medical marijuana sales began in the District at the Capital City Care clinic last month. Prices for marijuana range from $380 to $440 per ounce, according to the clinic's website.

The sliding scale program is intended to improve access for the poor, who potentially comprise a large percentage of medical marijuana consumers. Often, marijuana patients do not hold full-time jobs because of the nature of the illnesses that qualify them to use pot medically, analysts say. Medical marijuana cards issued to patients indicate whether they are low-income and eligible for discounts on the drug.

Other state governments mandate a sliding scale program for medical marijuana patient license registration. Arizona normally charges a $150 patient registry fee, which is reduced 50 percent for low-income registrants.

Yet in such cases the discount is funded by the state government, not the dispensaries.

Supporters have praised the rule for mitigating what they call "prohibition-level prices" of medical marijuana, said Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

"Marijuana is overpriced because it's overregulated, so a program for the poor is necessary," he said. "There's this outdated hysteria surrounding marijuana, but it's much safer than many other medications."

It is not clear when the rule, which was published in the D.C. Register last week and is in the midst of a 30-day review period, will take effect.

City officials in March proposed a subsidy program in which dispensaries would pay into a city-operated fund, but that proposal was amended. Under the new rule, dispensaries would have to reserve funds themselves to ensure that the discounts they give amount to 2 percent of their income. The city will audit reports from the clinics annually and can adjust the percentage of profits that dispensaries have to reserve for subsidies.

But dispensaries are uncertain about how they would meet the rule's new requirements. Unlike a city-operated fund, a mandate that dispensaries cover discounts up to 2 percent of their income could be fulfilled in several different ways, but officials haven't specified how it will operate.

"Nobody understands how this system is going to work," Mr. St. Pierre said.

Officials with the District's Department of Health did not return phone messages seeking comment.

The rule also does not specify which type of cannabis the dispensaries must discount. D.C. marijuana clinics carry multiple strains of the plant, some more expensive than others.

Dispensary owners sympathize with low-income patients, but "a 20 percent discount is not insignificant" as a challenge to business sustainability, said Mike Cuthriell, president of the Metropolitan Wellness Center dispensary in Southeast. While he believes discounts are beneficial to patients, Mr. Cuthriell expressed concerns about the ratio of low-income patients to those who are not.

Capital City Care dispensary already offers discounts for seniors, veterans and low-income patients.

"Capital City Care is happy to do its part to ensure that all qualified patients have access to the medicine," spokesman Scott Morgan said.

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