- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2012

Seven weeks after the D.C. Council banned the excessive clustering of medical-marijuana facilities to assuage residents of Ward 5, a city lawmaker is hoping to relocate the only eligible cultivation center to a site east of the Anacostia River.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, says the site proposed along Benning Road — where up to 95 marijuana plants would be grown — could upset plans for future retail and residential development in the area.

She said the legislation is not in opposition to the medical-marijuana program. But residents and an advisory neighborhood commission disapproved of Phyto Management‘s proposal and its location in an area that could gain significant foot traffic in coming years.

Ms. Alexander said Phyto‘s place of choice — a warehouse tucked between Interstate 295 and Minnesota Avenue Southeast — is not in an area the community considers “industrial,” though it meets the zoning requirements prescribed by the medical-marijuana law.

Ms. Alexander said she is trying to find a new site for Phyto, whose proposal made it through the first round of scoring by a panel of health, regulatory and law enforcement officials.

She said an industrial site in the ward’s Kenilworth neighborhood of Northeast would be a preferable spot for the center, and she is also working with council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, to find an alternative site in his ward.

Phyto‘s principal, Andras Kirschner, said that the District’s carefully regulated program has been fair, but that zoning regulations and short submission timeline did not allow the company to “gather a consensus from community members prior to submission of the application.”

Mr. Kirschner said Phyto chose its location after reviewing 40 industrial properties and, because of program regulations, is “neither intending to move nor actively looking to move because we are not permitted to move.”

Phyto has been paying rent since Oct. 1 and would like assurances that it can apply for a new location if city lawmakers decide to prohibit its preferred site, Mr. Kirschner said.

The bill is the council‘s second attempt in three months to define the parameters of the city’s medical-marijuana program, which is still vetting applicants.

In mid-January, the council capped the number of cultivation centers in a single ward at six. Any ward that accepts five cultivation centers cannot accept more than one dispensary, a site where the drug is distributed to qualified patients.

That change addressed the concerns of residents in Ward 5 because zoning and security restrictions resulted in many medical-marijuana entrepreneurs seeking space in warehouses near Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue Northeast.

Ms. Alexander‘s legislation applies solely to Phyto‘s application, so it does not open the door to changes among other applicants.

“I think my colleagues will be supportive,” Ms. Alexander said of her bill’s chances. “It’s not an opposition to the medical-marijuana program.”

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown declined to forecast the full legislature’s stance ahead of the meeting.

“We’ll be having that discussion” Tuesday, he said.

Mr. Kirschner said his company “will not stand in the way” of Ward 7’s plans, but noted that the current warehouse is ideal and that Phyto would like to be able to use it at least for the three to five years before redevelopment begins in the surrounding area.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Health, which oversees the medical-marijuana program, declined to comment on the legislation.

The District approved medical marijuana in a 1998 referendum, yet congressional intervention forced it to wait for more than a decade to move on the initiative.

The city’s health department is rolling out the program in a tightly regulated manner, entering the final phase of the application process before awarding up to 10 cultivation registrations and five dispensary registrations this spring.

Yet wavering stances from federal drug enforcement officials have put marijuana programs across the country on uncertain ground.

The District — through its methodical approach — should avoid federal interference, although it did ask applicants to sign a waiver that releases the city from liability if the federal government decides to prosecute the program’s participants.

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