- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2011

Applicants hoping to dispense medical marijuana in the District have until Halloween to submit their plans to city officials, pushing the long-awaited program forward even as federal prosecutors put a scare into the cannabis industry’s prospects in California and other states.

The D.C. Department of Health began to accept paperwork Oct. 3 from pre-approved groups that hope to be among the five picked to open a medical-marijuana dispensary.

Barring an extension, the District should wrap up its two-part application process by the end of the month. The first part was to select 10 groups to grow marijuana at secure cultivation centers and ran from Aug. 15 to Sept. 30.

D.C. residents have waited more than a dozen years for medical marijuana, since approving the plan in a 1998 referendum. The plan was stalled when a congressional rider known as the Barr Amendment banned the city from funding legalization efforts. However, the ban was lifted in 2009, which cleared the way for the program’s implementation.

Meanwhile, proponents of medical marijuana across the country are seeing an increasingly tenuous relationship vis-a-vis the federal government.

On Friday, all four of the U.S. attorneys offices in California said they will be cracking down on marijuana dispensaries that are operating beyond the scope of state law.

The move comes three months after the Justice Department issued a memo that stated the federal government still considers marijuana a restricted substance and may not look the other way regarding locally approved medical-marijuana programs, a clarification of its more lenient-sounding position in 2009.

Last spring, U.S. attorneys in states such as Arizona and Washington issued letters of warning to state officials, placing their medical marijuana programs in limbo or prompting the shutdown of some dispensaries.

“I would say we shouldn’t just be looking at California, we should be looking at what the federal government’s been doing over the last six months,” Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said Monday. “The chilling effect has already occurred, and we’re hopeful that it goes no further.”

Medical-marijuana advocacy groups say they are disappointed with Barack Obama because he did not show support for the industry on the 2008 campaign trail.

“Frankly, we’re completely puzzled,” Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said Monday. “Nobody knows why the administration would take quite a reversal.”

But the situation in California and other states does not necessarily spell trouble for programs around the country, said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Jurisdictions with a clear regulatory system, which includes the District, have not been exposed to federal interference so far, he said.

The D.C. government has tread warily and is aware of the federal government’s position. In its application materials, the city inserted a section that requires applicants to state in writing that they assume the risk of federal prosecution for growing or distributing the drug and that they cannot hold the city liable for arrests.

As a result, the D.C. Patients’ Cooperative has decided to take a “wait-and-see” approach instead of applying to the program, according to board member Nikolas Schiller.

“It basically says we have to admit we’re violating federal law,” Mr. Schiller said. “It’s a little bit frustrating, to say the least.”

A city official said Friday that most of the cultivation applications came in shortly before the Sept. 30 deadline and that they are still being processed, so it is unclear whether the prosecution clause had a significant effect on the number of applicants.

“There’s no indication the feds are going to charge in and arrest people because they signed this form,” Mr. Hermes said. “One does not equal the other, but this certainly should not become an impediment to becoming licensed and helping patients.”

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

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