D.C. progress….

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Official: Medical Marijuana in D.C. by May 2012

If its ok in the nation’s capital, what could be next? -UA

A year after the District legalized medical marijuana, nobody is legally growing or selling it. Patients once thought they would be receiving the drug by early 2011, but bureaucratic delays and the city’s caution in implementing its drug law have caused some would-be patients and entrepreneurs to fume.

But things appear to be picking up. District regulators are forging ahead despite a recent Justice Department memo that has worried state medical marijuana program coordinators nationwide, and city officials on Tuesday said dozens of individuals and businesses will be allowed to apply for licenses to operate five dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers.

The city now expects patients to have access to medicinal marijuana, which advocates say can relieve pain and stimulate appetite, by May 2012.

“This is a very complicated process,” District Department of Health Director Mohammad N. Akhter said. “The community should be very pleased that we are moving forward with this and are doing things in a way that will make sure the program will be here to stay.”

Still, some are skeptical. District officials have already missed a launch goal set when the law came into effect on July 27, 2010.

“I don’t believe they’re going to be ready to deliver by [May],” said Nancy Miranda, 37, a Columbia Heights resident who said she wants to use prescription marijuana for her migraine headaches. “If they do, they’ll surprise me and, of course, make me very happy.”

Akhter said recent changes in the program — including Mayor Vincent Gray’s (D) April decision to have the health department run the application process — caused some delays.

“Once you move something like this, you need to do new rules and regulations, and it needs to go to the Council,” said Akhter. “Considering all of those things, it has moved very expeditiously.”

Akhter would not name the approved applicants — they are scheduled to be revealed on Aug. 5 — but he expects candidates to file proposals by Sept. 9. A six-member panel, consisting of a patient advocate and representatives from five city departments, will review the proposals with commissioners of affected Advisory Neigborhood Commissions over three months, he said.

Akhter said he expects license awardees to be named by year’s end, and marijuana should be ready to be dispensed by next May. “When this program gets implemented, it’s going to be the tightest-controlled program in the United States,” he said.

Still, some possible participants — such as Nikolas Schiller — consider the city’s pace “glacial.” Schiller’s group, D.C. Patients’ Cooperative, identified potential cultivation center and dispensary sites in the city after the law passed. Concerned about the program’s pace, they did not sign any leases — and many of those sites are now rented. Schiller, the only paid staff member, has been laid off by the group’s investors.

At-large Council member Phil Mendelson (D) said that though he wants the process to move quickly, he appreciates the city’s deliberate approach even as some community activists have been “impatient.”

Being careful is important, marijuana policy experts say, because recent raids and Justice Department communications indicate that the federal government may still choose to prosecute state-licensed medical marijuana operators.

For some experts, a June Justice Department memo written by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole suggests that prosecutors can target state-licensed dispensaries and cultivation centers because, Cole wrote, people “in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities” violate federal law, regardless of state law.

District officials “should be concerned” by the memo, said Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist who argues for the legalization of marijuana.

Justice Department spokeswoman Jessica A. Smith said in an e-mail that the memo “reinforces” previous departmental drug policy “in light of changing state laws and increased commercial cultivation of marijuana for purported medical purposes.”

National responses to the memo have varied. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has continued a statewide hold on issuing dispensary licenses, saying the memo “offers little more than continued confusion and doublespeak.” Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced a plan last week to create six new dispensaries.

Beatrice “B.B.” Otero, deputy mayor for health and human services, said in a statement that Gray’s administration does not want to “put anything forward that could jeopardize the implementation of the law.”

City and Justice Department officials have met to discuss Cole’s memo, according to authorities. Otero said Gray believes the city’s program will allow licensed operators to work “in a safe and medically appropriate manner.”

As such, the application process will move to its next phase on Aug. 5. Akhter said the application will ask for prospective locations and plans for on-site security and public education about the drug.

E-mails, interviews and letters of intent submitted by prospective applicants provide some ideas about where the facilities might go. Some suggested sites in warehouses near busy thoroughfares; others target existing business districts across the city.

O. Wesley Martin wants to run a dispensary and cultivation center along the bustling H Street NE corridor. In an e-mail, Martin said he has met with area business owners and “everyone is anxiously awaiting my debut.”

Some are not, however. “We’re against that. We’re for Jesus,” said Anthony Chloe, manager of a Salvation Army thrift store, when told of the possibility of a medical marijuana facility nearby.

But Jonathan de la Cruz, 23 , is happy that the District has made progress.

De la Cruz — paralyzed from the chest down after he was shot in February 2009 — said he purchases marijuana illegally to ease his leg spasms. A Hyattsville resident, he said he plans to move to the District and then obtain a prescription for marijuana.

De la Cruz says he knows what he is doing is illegal but agreed to to tell his story because he believes medical marijuana is much needed by those with severe ailments and disabilities.

“Let’s speed up the process and make sure we get there,” he said. “There are people who need it.”

Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: Victor Zapana
Published: July 29

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