While D.C. officials wait for six firms to grow medical marijuana in warehouses less than five miles from the White House, the role of cannabis in American life is taking center stage in political and legal bouts across the country.
The city government is treading warily in its implementation of the program, which voters approved in a 1998 referendum before congressional interference and painstaking rule-making delayed it for more than a decade. But the long-awaited debut of cultivation centers and dispensaries in the District — at “the doorstep of the federal government” — could help turn the political tide in nationwide advocates’ favor, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.
“There’s huge symbolism and huge significance to that fact,” he said.
The legalization of marijuana in various forms has been a lightning rod from coast to coast, as states introduce a patchwork of medical-cannabis programs and grapple with the U.S. government’s unpredictable enforcement of federal laws that prohibit the drug’s cultivation and use in all cases.
Next month, voters in Massachusetts and Arkansas will weigh in on ballot initiatives to approve medical-marijuana laws and join the nation’s capital and 17 states in offering a cannabis program to qualified patients. In Oregon, Colorado and Washington, voters will decide whether their states should legalize recreational use of small amounts of marijuana among residents 21 and older.
With weeks to go before Nov. 6 elections, medical-marijuana advocates say they are disappointed with the Obama administration’s sporadic crackdowns on various programs during his first term, citing early promises to stay out of the way of initiatives to aid the sick and dying. The enforcement, it would seem, also is at odds with a 2009 memo from the U.S. Department of Justice that suggested the federal government would not expend resources against people acting in compliance “with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
This summer, the Justice Department appeared to shift course in a letter to U.S. attorneys that signaled they should not acquiesce to those who cultivate or sell marijuana.
“It’s very puzzling,” Mr. Hermes said.
In the District, officials say they are rolling out the program in a measured way so it does not face the pitfalls that plagued centers in California and other states.
After an exhaustive review, the city’s Department of Health in March selected a half-dozen cultivation centers for registration. In mid-June, officials approved four applicants who intended to register dispensaries for the drug. Pressure is on the cultivation centers to establish the supply of medical marijuana before dispensaries can sell it, but a timeline for the burgeoning program is not precise.
The successful applicants must apply for building permits, certificates of occupancy and business licenses before they register, and none of the successful applicants had obtained the requisite documents as of Thursday, said Helder Gil, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Eligible firms received applications from the Department of Health by email Wednesday to register officially as a cultivation center or dispensary. The agency sent the applications now because “some are closer than others” to finishing the regulatory process, Health Department spokeswoman Mahlori Isaacs said.
“We’re building,” said Corey Barnette, a principal at the District Growers cultivation site on Evarts Street Northeast. “We’re in the process of trying to get our permitting and stuff done.”
Mr. Barnette said he is optimistic that he will secure his certificate of occupancy as soon as the coming week, after he has fully prepared his warehouse and can bring in equipment for cultivation.
“You have to have it wired, so you have the right amount of power just getting the building ready to get the garden in it, having water where you want it,” he said, describing the construction phase.
To get to this point, D.C. applicants had to sign waivers releasing the city from liability if the federal government prosecutes the program’s participants. To proponents of medical marijuana, the document served as a reminder of the tenuous relationship between local and federal views on medicinal marijuana use.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments Tuesday from Mr. Hermes’ group and the Drug Enforcement Administration on whether marijuana should be classified as a Schedule 1 drug. The DEA defines such drugs as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Besides marijuana, the category includes drugs such as heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.
Advocates filed the legal action against the DEA last year after the administration rejected a petition arguing that scientific evidence does not support the government’s classification of marijuana. After this week’s hearing, the court asked one of the case’s petitioners, Michael Krawitz, to clarify why he has standing to bring the case. Advocates interpreted that as a sign that their case will be vetted fully.
“We’re very excited the court is taking the case seriously,” Mr. Hermes said. “This is a landmark case.”
Yet a DEA position paper on cannabis, prominently displayed on its website as “The Truth About Marijuana and Legalization,” offers little leeway to the “legalization lobby” and “fallacy of marijuana for medicinal use.”
“The campaign to legitimize what is called ‘medical’ marijuana is based on two propositions: first, that science views marijuana as medicine; and second, that the DEA targets sick and dying people using the drug,” the paper says. “Neither proposition is true.”