The District of Columbia passed its first milestone in selecting who gets the much-coveted licenses for the city’s medical marijuana program, even as the federal government is taking a second look at its hands-off approach to those who legally grow and sell cannabis under laws allowing its medicinal use.
The city is expected to soon kick off its long-awaited program — put on hold by Congress 11 years ago — in earnest, joining 16 states in legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana for qualified patients.
|Photo: The Georgetowner
|D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has approved final regulations for medical marijuana in the District of Columbia.
Democratic Mayor Vincent S. Gray and other D.C. officials were particularly worried about federal interference in their medical marijuana plans, because the District’s laws are subject to Congressional approval and marijuana is still illegal for any purpose under federal law.
A 2009 memo, issued by U.S. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, reminded federal prosecutors that “no state can authorize violations of federal law” while at the same time advising U.S. Attorneys not to target patients and caregivers acting in compliance “with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
Federal prosecutors for the first two years of the Obama Administration mostly looked the other way in states that had legalized medical marijuana, but a letter from the Department of Justice to U.S. Attorneys across the country last week seemed to signal that law enforcement still plans to go after those who cultivate or sell cannabis, according to a D.C. government source.
The U.S. Attorney for D.C. has not issued any such threatening letters so far, and is “studying the issue to see what input we can provide on the subject,” said Bill Miller, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ron Machen.
A Congressional rider known as the Barr Amendment had banned D.C. from implementing a medical marijuana program since 1998, when an overwhelming 69 percent of District voters approved legalizing medicinal cannabis there.
The Barr Amendment was finally lifted in 2009, clearing the way for medical marijuana in D.C.
The mayor issued rules in April requiring persons who want to cultivate or sell medical marijuana in the District to send notification by June 17 to the Health Regulation and Licensing Administration, a branch of the city’s health department, ahead of a more formal application.
A host of applicants is vying for the permits for 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries.
A Freedom Of Information Act request response showed 82 separate applicants for the program, many of them asking for permits to both grow and sell marijuana.
A majority of them — 47 — listed mailing addresses in D.C. in their letters to the health department. Other applicants were from Maryland (18), Virginia (7), New York (3), New Jersey (2), and one each from California, Colorado and Montana.
A few of the out-of-state applicants boasted experience in medical marijuana in states where it is already legal. The health department could not be reached for comment on whether experienced growers and sellers from medical marijuana states would gain preference over applicants originating in D.C.
A panel of five members — one each from the Department of Health, Metropolitan Police Department, Office of the Attorney General, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and a consumer or patient advocate — will score each of the eventual applications based on a 250-point scale examining criteria such as security and staffing at facilities, overall business plans and the opinions of local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
Beyond community approval, marijuana cultivation centers will be tightly regulated on size, a strict 95-plant limit, staffing, lighting and buffer zones between growing centers and schools.
Applicants must be at least 21 years old and may not have been convicted of any felonies or misdemeanor drug crimes.