Jason Klein: Despite Delays and Uncertainty, Optimism Surrounds Washington DC Medical Cannabis Program

By Jason Klein

The Washington DC Medical Marijuana Program has been a long time in the making. Way back in 1998, 69% of residents in the District voted in favor of the medical use of marijuana. But Congress held the program hostage for more than a decade through the Barr Amendment, which not only blocked any funds being spent on the program, it also prohibited the lopsided vote tally from even being released.

Finally, in 2010, after years of litigation, the amendment was finally lifted and it looked like a functioning medical marijuana program was right around the corner.

But not so fast.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In April 2010, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty came out in favor of medical marijuana. Fenty’s first round of regulations were stringent but fair, and they would have ushered a functioning program into place by the end of 2010.

Any hopes that the District would efficiently roll out a program by year-end, however, were quickly dashed. The rulemaking process was snarled by internal political wrangling, a new mayor taking office and a small but loud group of grassroots opponents.

Following five rounds of amended regulations and general foot-dragging over an 18-month period, final regulations were finally implemented near the end of 2011. At the same time, the Department of Health began accepting applications to operate dispensaries and cultivation centers. Once again, patients, entrepreneurs and advocates hopes were raised that the District would be on a timetable to see an operational program by February or March 2012. Applicants spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to be among the first businesses in the new sphere.

But the Department of Health has failed to meet its own timetable at least six times, and delays and a lack of transparency continue to rule the day.

Patience Above All Else

The good news: Intrepid entrepreneurs who had the patience, wherewithal and resources to see them through the years of stalling may finally be in line to reap the rewards soon. In the past two months there have been some encouraging signs of life in the program.

The District announced in January that it has whittled down the field of potential cultivation centers to 17 applicants. The applications that made it past the first round of review are now being scored by local neighborhood advisory councils. And the administrator of the program, Dr. Mohammed Akhter of the Department of Health, has made public statements that he expects a program in place by summer.

In response to these encouraging signs, the First Annual Washington DC Medical Marijuana Symposium took place on Feb. 2.  The event – which I organized to help unite the industry – brought together for the first time many of the applicants who will become the future leaders of medical marijuana in the District.

Despite all the delays and challenges that will most certainly impact the business, optimism ruled the day. The applicants were excited to meet one another and begin a discussion about the most pressing issues facing the industry.

Several themes developed throughout the day:

  • The lack of transparency and urgency on behalf of the Department of Health in implementing the program has been the primary cause of the most recent delays. This is disconcerting not only because of the immediate impact of delays (every delay costs applicants money), but also because it’s unclear whether the Department of Health will be a willing and cooperative partner in the process or a distant and secretive commander.
  • There is a great deal of misinformation in Washington, DC, caused in large part by the failure of the Department of Health to provide educational outreach to key stakeholder groups. Grassroots opposition to the program could be resolved through the dissemination of accurate information.
  • Applicants are hopeful that the combination of the most strictly regulated program in the country together with the 95-plant limitation on cultivation centers will prompt federal agencies to keep their distance and not interfere with the smooth operation of the closely held industry.
  • A community of operators committed to running responsible, locally oriented businesses focused on the well-being of all sick and disabled residents of the District is essential to the long-term viability of the medical marijuana program.  Unlike the infighting and lack of cohesive best practices that plague some industries in other states, applicants in Washington DC hope to establish best practices and standards that will serve to better their industry from the start and in turn provide safer access to District residents.

Could DC be an Example?

The Washington DC Medical Marijuana Program has the potential to have a far-reaching impact beyond just improving the health and safety of sick and disabled residents. The program can become a model for other states to follow and a beacon for states that say it is not possible. If we can do it right here, in Congress’ and the DEA’s own backyard, than it is possible anywhere.

If politicians, bureaucrats and policymakers see for themselves on a daily basis how medical marijuana can be grown and dispensed in a responsible fashion, without the deleterious impact that is so often cited – but not-so-often demonstrated  — they may be forced to reconsider some of their outmoded ways of thinking about marijuana and the entire War on Drugs.

That is the dream, but as for today, we in Washington DC are simply looking forward to the day in the not-so-distant future when sick and disabled residents can have safe access to the medicine they deserve.

Jason Klein, Esq., is principal of the Law Office of Jason Klein, PLLC, which works exclusively on medical marijuana issues. Follow him on Twitter: @DCCannabisLaw