The D.C. Council on Tuesday imposed new limits on the city’s medical marijuana program about two weeks before the long-awaited initiative is expected to begin in earnest.
Lawmakers approved a proposal, through a 9-3 vote, that bans cultivation centers from opening in “retail priority areas” flagged for development on pockets of land across the District. Any applicants affected by the legislation can change their location within 180 days without it harming their request for registration from the city’s Department of Health to grow or sell the drug.
The legislation from council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, will apply citywide. But the issue was spawned by complaints about a warehouse south of Benning Road in her ward, where up to 95 marijuana plants would be grown if one applicant obtains a registration this month.
Plans are under way to build 376 residential units and 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurants “mere feet away from an intended cultivation site,” Ms. Alexander told the council.
Debate on the measure was wideranging and confusing at times, with Ms. Alexander calling up her own measure for reconsideration, even though it had passed, because she realized an amendment by council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, would not mandate that cultivation centers relocate from retail-priority areas.
“It just destroyed the intent of the bill,” she said of the amendment, which removed the language on retail areas and focused on allowing cultivation centers to relocate without facing a penalty.
The bill appears most directly to affect Phyto Management — the applicant that picked a spot between Minnesota Avenue and Interstate 295 in Ward 7 — although it was written with all applicants in mind.
Phyto’s principal, who is still waiting for registration from the city, declined to comment on the council’s actions on Tuesday.
“They are willing to relocate,” Ms. Alexander said from the dais, noting she is committed to helping Phyto find a new location.
Mr. Mendelson and council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, raised objections to altering the tightly regulated medical marijuana program that has been in the making since 1998, when city voters approved the program in a referendum before congressional intervention delayed its implementation for more than a decade.
The council members, who oversee judiciary and health matters, played a key role in crafting medical marijuana regulations in recent years. The Department of Health is slated to award up to 10 registrations to cultivation centers on March 30 and up to five registrations for dispensary centers — where the drug is doled out — by June 8.
Mr. Catania said objections to cultivation centers “pales in comparison to the controversy that is coming when we have to take up the issue of dispensaries.”
“A cultivation center is simply a warehouse,” he said. “It’s fully self-contained, there is no obvious evidence of what is taking place inside, so therefore I don’t really feel it’s going to impede the economic development of a community.”
Some council members were concerned about placing additional restrictions on the program, after the body’s decision in January to restrict the number of medical marijuana sites per ward to assuage Ward 5 residents who felt they were taking too many of the cultivation centers.
Based on existing applications, the restriction limited the number of possible cultivation centers to seven, or six in Ward 5 and one in Ward 7. The number could be cut to six if Phyto Management runs into problems relocating.
“It’s having an adverse effect on the program because it’s limiting the supply,” Mr. Mendelson said.
Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, joined Mr. Mendelson and Mr. Catania in voting against the bill.
Mr. Mendelson initially voted for the bill but withdrew his support after Ms. Alexander killed his amendment to exclusively address the relocation process. From the dais, he said Ms. Alexander’s bill did not need language on retail priority areas if current applicants were truly ready and willing to move.
“There was disingenuousness in the debate,” Mr. Mendelson said after the meeting.