Stephanie Kahn, who watched the pain her father endured from multiple sclerosis and her mother from cancer, says the District makes it too hard to buy the one treatment that might have eased their suffering.
Ms. Kahn, who with her husband, David, owns the Takoma Wellness Center in Northwest Washington, says the city’s Department of Health makes it too cumbersome for residents to register for a medical marijuana card as a way to ease pain.
“We have patients who wait and wait and wait,” said Ms. Kahn, who said nearly a third of her patients are 60 or older. “It takes way too long. There’s all kinds of barriers that they have put up for patients’ access and it’s very frustrating.”
She is not alone in her frustration: Sam Pettee, director of marketing at the Metropolitan Wellness Center, a medical cannabis dispensary on Capitol Hill, said the center sends out two or three emails a day pleading on behalf of patients who have applied for a medical marijuana card and still have not received one.
“That’s the big concern we are facing right now because someone’s old and sick,” said Mr. Pettee. “They don’t have two months to wait and get their medicine.”
Ms. Kahn said it is a challenge for her patients, particularly those who are extremely sick, to receive medical marijuana cards. It generally takes the D.C. Department of Health a month or longer to send cards.
Asked about processing times for medical marijuana cards, a Department of Health spokeswoman told The Times, “D.C. Health’s policy is for patient registration identification cards to be processed within 30 days.”
Incomplete applications, or those with incorrect information, may take longer to process, the department said.
To obtain a medical marijuana card in the District, a patient must receive a recommendation from a registered medical marijuana physician, submit an application to the Health Department with two proofs of D.C. residency, a headshot and a photo ID, and pay a $100 registration fee. Cards must be renewed each year.
Low-income patients must document their income to qualify for a discounted $25 card. The registration fee can be paid only with a money order, a certified check or a cashier’s check.
Mr. Pettee said he has pressed Health Department officials multiple times why it takes almost 60 days to process a card.
“We’ve tried to ask them why over a series over the last six months,” he said. “They don’t really give us a concrete answer. They told us people should start applying online and they could be able to process the cards faster. We directed our patients to do that, but we haven’t really seen a difference at all.”
The District has 5,443 registered patients for the medical marijuana program. When the program started, patients were assigned to just one of the five dispensaries. The D.C. Council recently authorized a reciprocity arrangement that grants medical marijuana patients from 16 states the right to purchase marijuana at city dispensaries.
D.C. patients also can go to any dispensary in the city of their choosing. The Health Department says it will issue two more dispensary licenses in Ward 7 and Ward 8 this year.
The city’s restrictions can make the process far from smooth.
Patients and caregivers can have only 4 ounces of medical marijuana within a 30-day window. The eight cultivation centers that supply the city’s dispensaries are not allowed to possess more than 1,000 living marijuana plants at any time.
Those who run fully legal marijuana growing facilities in the District keep their operations low-key because of security and sensitive local political concerns. Several growers approached by The Washington Times did not respond to requests for comment.
The owners of the National Holistic Healing Center, a Dupont Circle medical marijuana dispensary, said that with more people obtaining a medical card and with reciprocity, the city’s Department of Health needs to look into increasing the plant count to head off a potential marijuana shortage.
“I think that the Department of Health needs to look at the plant count in order to ensure we don’t to come into that situation,” said Michael Macias, the center’s director of marketing and sales. “Right now, we are not there, but I think that’s something that should be looked at.”
Owner Chanda Macias added, “If we have to forecast how much we are ramping up each month by ourselves, I would say we definitely need to increase our plant count” — even supply for now is keeping up with demand.
Ms. Kahn, whose Takoma Wellness Center treats up to 140 people each day, warned that if the plant production allowance isn’t raised soon, “it’s going to be a shortage again. We have been trying to tell them that that’s going to be a problem.”
At the National Holistic Healing Center, the marijuana is prepackaged to enhance its image as a legitimate medicine that should not be displayed for all patients. A gram of marijuana sells for $15 on average. The liquid form of marijuana is $40, and an edible treat is $17.
“This is medicine, and we wanted to give it the respect it deserves,” said Ms. Macias. “You go to CVS and see people picking out what pills they want. You don’t want people looking at your medicine and picking it out.”
Ms. Macias, who received a doctorate in cell biology from Howard University, opened the dispensary in 2015 when she noticed a high number of people in the area with HIV/AIDS. Her research at Howard led her to study how marijuana shrinks cancerous tumors.
“Instead of using medical marijuana as a last option, I really think it should be the first option ,” said Ms. Macias, who chairs the Maryland/D.C. chapter of Women Grow. “I have seen the patients make miraculous recoveries. I have seen treatment that has helped so many ailments and conditions.”
“People’s thoughts and ideas on the narrative on cannabis have been shaped by people with political agendas, economic agendas, social agendas. We have everything but the truth,” she said. “Having witnessed the lives that have been changed based upon cannabis, it’s an amazing thing.”