- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2013

Mike Cuthriell has navigated D.C. government regulations for two-and-a-half years to open a medical marijuana dispensary and now only needs a final inspection from the Department of Health before he can officially open his Metropolitan Wellness Center. But the center won’t be able to stay open unless the health department sanctions one more thing: patients.

As of Thursday, 18 doctors had received applications to allow them to recommend medical marijuana to qualified patients, health department officials said. Forms that would allow patients to apply for registration cards are supposed to be available by mid-June, the agency said.

The status of the forms is a matter of dispute.

Mike Liszewski, policy director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Americans for Safe Access, which promotes safe and legal access to marijuana, said his understanding was that the forms have not yet been created. But health department spokeswoman Najma Roberts said the forms have been developed.

Even if the health department does release patient forms later this month, Mr. Cuthriell predicts that marijuana dispensaries may have to wait additional weeks or months while patients complete a multi-step process to request the form and apply for a registration card.

Mr. Cuthriell said the financial effect of the delay is “a big question.” The Metropolitan Wellness Center at Eastern Market in Southeast and two other dispensaries, the Takoma Wellness Center and Capital City Care, both in Northwest, are paying for security systems, rent, staffing and more so that if and when patients begin patronizing the dispensaries they are ready to receive them.

A November 2010 fiscal impact statement provided by the District’s chief financial officer estimated that 800 patients would qualify and be registered to use medical marijuana and that the number would increase 50 percent each year for the first five years. Mr. Cuthriell and other dispensary owners used this number to gauge the potential size of their market.

The Metropolitan Wellness Center spends its time doing preparatory work, “little things, but we’re not just sitting around,” Vanessa West, general manager, said.

“Because we haven’t had our final inspection by DOH, we’re not exactly complaining yet,” she said. “I’m more disappointed because there are patients who have a qualifying disease, but it’s taking forever for physicians to get recommendation forms.”

Asked about the frustrations expressed as a result of the delays, Ms. Roberts said three cultivation centers have been issued registrations and are growing medical marijuana.

“It takes 90 days to grow the plant. While the dispensaries are ready there is nothing to dispense until the product is ready,” Ms. Roberts said.

Patients eligible to use medical marijuana include those with cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS and conditions characterized by severe and persistent muscle spasms, such as multiple sclerosis. Patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy or patients using azidothymidine or protease inhibitors also qualify.

While lobbying a section of the federal tax code that bars businesses selling certain drugs — including medical marijuana — from making expense-related tax deductions, Ms. West was surprised that some representatives in Congress seemed unaware that the District had legalized medical marijuana.

The city has waited 15 years for implementation of the law. A congressional rider known as the Barr Amendment banned the District from funding legalization efforts since 1998, when 69 percent of voters cast ballots approving the use of medical marijuana in the District. The rider was lifted in 2009, clearing the way for the program’s implementation.

Ms. West believes problems with the health department might be due to understaffing. City regulations stipulate an informational class for physicians about administering marijuana, but the class hasn’t begun and many physicians remain in the dark about the legal parameters or even the existence of the District’s medical marijuana program, said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Of the 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana, the District is said to have the tightest regulations.

Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said the national trend has been toward state regulation, using a top-down approach with tight restrictions on the operation of marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers. California, however, has a comparatively loosely regulated system at the state level, with some stricter local regulations.

New Mexico, which legalized medical marijuana in 2007, demonstrates the problems of failing to ramp up production and distribution fast enough to meet statewide demand. In the District, the problems lie on the demand side rather than the supply side, but playing catchup with qualification of doctors and patients is an analogous issue and “a bad sign,” Mr. Hermes said.

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