- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

With names such as “District of Cannabis” and “Jahrock,” hopeful entrepreneurs eager to grow or sell medical marijuana in the District of Columbia are touting their business acumen, green thumbs, or desire to aid the ill and dying in applications submitted to the city.

They include nonprofit activists from Northwest, a rabbi from Takoma and a well-known attorney who represented the “D.C. Madam.”

Several applicants, like the women behind Jahrock, speak openly and enthusiastically about their prospects, while others refuse to show their cards while they compete for permits for 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries.

Tamina Pryor and Monique Watson created their new company’s name, Jahrock, by jumbling their children’s initials together and admiring the results. The executive assistants believe in holistic medicine.

“It’s funny [because] it sounds Jamaican,” Ms. Pryor said. So does the reggae music on their company phone line, which offers the soothing refrain of “feel good” while callers wait for someone to pick up.

One potential grower, who asked not to be identified, said the “art of surprise” in a competitive and highly regulated environment prevents him from discussing the matter. The marketing partner for another applicant, the Potomac Patients First Group, said he cannot comment, on the advice of attorneys. And one applicant responded to a list of questions with this: “How did you get my information?”

Since late April, an eclectic mix of potential growers and sellers has written letters of intent to the D.C. Department of Health to kick off the long-awaited program, joining 16 states in legalizing use for qualified patients.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, issued rules last month that require persons interested in cultivating or dispensing medical marijuana in the District to send notification to the Health Regulation and Licensing Administration, a branch of the city health department, by June 17 ahead of a more formal application.

In the first three weeks, the agency received nearly a dozen letters from companies expressing interest in both facets of the business, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

A panel of five members — one each from the Department of Health, Metropolitan Police Department, Office of the Attorney General, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and a consumer or patient advocate — will score each of the eventual applications based on a 250-point scale that examines criteria such as security and staffing at their facilities, their overall business plans and the opinions of local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

An applicant must be at least 21 years old and not been convicted of any felonies or misdemeanor drug crimes. Half of the $5,000 application fee is non-refundable, which may thin out the pool of applicants.

Adam Eidinger said his nonprofit, the District of Columbia Patients’ Cooperative, has been well received by ANCs near their home base in Adams Morgan. After all, he noted, a medical marijuana dispensary is not comparable to a tavern.

“You don’t have live music coming out the windows and drunk people coming out the door,” he said.

Mr. Eidinger, a longtime D.C. activist, said his nonprofit comes at the issue from a different angle than business moguls dipping into a new market. He said his group is more concerned with patient access and affordability. Plus, official limits on plant cultivation and an unclear patient demand make it a fragile market.

“This is no gold rush,” Mr. Eidinger said. “If I were motivated by profit, I would have quit a long time ago.”

Mr. Eidinger can speak knowledgeably and extensively about medical marijuana, but certain things are off-limits. That includes their potential cultivation sites — it’s a security issue, he said — or when he realized that cannabis could help his own chronic arthritis.

The it’s-still-illegal nature of marijuana use and cultivation, even while medicinal programs emerge around the country, puts the topic on tenuous ground.

“This is about people being treated as criminals, who are actually sick,” Mr. Eidinger said.

Beyond community approval, cultivation centers must meet tight restrictions on size, a stringent 95-plant allotment, staffing, lighting and buffer zones between cultivation centers and schools.

Applicants who agreed to speak about their efforts were either reluctant to disclose their proposed cultivation sites or are still looking for one. What is clear from multiple applications, however, is many of them are looking at sites in Northeast because of the available industrial space in that section of the District.

“I found it very difficult to find space, and I was very pleased when I did,” said Montgomery Blair Sibley, who found a facility on New York Avenue in Northeast. He filed an application for his “The Medicinal Marijuana Company of the District of Columbia” on letterhead that features an “Rx” pharmacy symbol superimposed on a marijuana leaf.

Mr. Sibley, who represented “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey in 2007, said his legal background should help his navigate the small-print of the permit process and strict government regulations as he pursues this “economic opportunity.”

“I believe it’s an industry that’s going to grow rapidly,” he said.

But first, he’s got to make the cut.

“I think all of us are starting from scratch on this,” Ms. Pryor said, adding, “We’re hoping the process is fair.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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