- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2011

Twenty-seven of the 28 applicants hoping to grow medical marijuana in the District want to set up shop in Northeast, particularly in warehouse space near strip clubs and other commercial properties.

The D.C. Department of Health will pore over the applications and cut the pool to 10 operations worthy of a cultivation registration in the burgeoning, yet fragile, medical marijuana industry.

The majority of applicants, which include a group tied to TV personality Montel Williams, sought warehouse space in a sliver of Ward 5 near New York Avenue and Queens Chapel and Bladensburg Roads, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

The city is rolling out its licensing program for 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries in a tightly regulated manner, hoping to avoid the legal stumbles that prompted federal prosecutors to roll back similar programs in states across the nation. D.C. health officials said they will accept applications for dispensaries until Halloween.

Entrepreneurs who wish to grow the drug submitted their applications last month, offering the first glimpse at who is in the running to open a cultivation center in the District and where they plan to set up their operations.

Cultivation centers must be 300 feet from schools and recreation centers and meet certain zoning requirements, which narrow applicants’ options and explain why they are clustered in one industrial area of the city.

Some groups submitted multiple applications for the same location, presumably to increase their chances of securing a coveted registration. Two particular addresses, one on New York Avenue and one on Fenwick Street, appear to involve subletting agreements among separate applicants.

One such applicant, Montgomery Blair Sibley, said he has lined up four tenants and will wait to see who secures a registration and will need space in his building.

“I think we’re in good shape,” he said of his business, the Medicinal Marijuana Company of the District of Columbia. “We’ve crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is, and now it’s a matter of where the chips fall.”

The pair of applicants outside of Ward 5 list a location on U Street in the Anacostia section of Southeast and on Benning Road in Ward 7.

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.

Besides 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.

An applicant must be at least 21 years old and not been convicted of any felonies or misdemeanor drug crimes.

The long-awaited D.C. initiative is charging forward, even as programs across the nation face increased federal scrutiny.

Earlier this month, 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 announcement came 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.

Some experts say the situation in California and other states does not necessarily endanger programs in the District or other parts of the country.

The D.C. government is aware of the federal government’s position. Congressional interference forced the District to wait more than a dozen years for the medical marijuana program its residents approved by a referendum in 1998. 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.

It caused some applicants to think twice about applying, yet some medical marijuana advocacy groups say the warning is commonplace and a necessary warning to those looking to enter the industry.

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

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