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Washington DC Revised Medical Marijuana Rules Still Restrictive

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Today, the District published a revised set of rules and regulations for the city’s medical marijuana program, which is set to kick off in earnest in January 2011. But despite the hopes of many, the system being put in place to regulate the growth, sale and use of medical marijuana hasn’t gotten any less restrictive.

A first set of rules was published in early August, sketching out a tightly controlled, citywide program which would allow only five dispensaries to provide marijuana to qualifying patients and 10 cultivation centers to actually grow it. The rules also limited the amount of marijuana any patient could have in a 30-day period (two ounces) and how many plants any cultivation center could grow at once (95), prohibited home-growing and established registration fees that are so high as to potentially make the system unworkable.

During a 45-day public comment period, a number of medical marijuana advocacy organizations provided input in hopes of changing some of the most restrictive rules. From the look of the revised rules to be published today, it looks like they got some of the changes they wanted, but not all.

Among the most substantial changes is the removal of any reference to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration, which was initially tasked with regulating dispensaries and cultivation centers. In its place will be a new four-member board “delegated by the Mayor to conduct registration, licensing, and enforcement proceedings involving cultivation centers and dispensaries.” Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group, pushed for this change in comments it submitted, writing, “ABRA lacks the qualified personnel and institutional framework to possess or develop an expertise on the science, research, and integrated health issues concerning the use of cannabis for medical treatment.”

Another big change, and a substantial victory for local medical marijuana advocates, is how licenses for dispensaries and cultivation centers will be doled out. While the initial set of rules gave first consideration to whomever got their applications in first, the revised rules more broadly consider a number of factors. Now, the four-member panel will score every application on a 200-point scale, with points assigned based on a number of factors. A good security plan gets you 50 points, while a solid staffing plan and lots of knowledge of local drug laws nets you 20. There are even bonus points: 20 for an educational materials plan in a dispensary, and 20 for an environmental plan at a cultivation center. The panel will also consider whether applicants are in it for themselves or as agents of larger companies or organizations; a hat-tip to concerns that out-of-state outfits would flock to the District for the sole purpose of making a quick buck on medical marijuana.

A rule was also added allowing the use of artificial lighting for the growth of marijuana in cultivation centers, a likely nod to the fact that many growers use heat lamps to speed the process along.

The Department of Health estimates that only 800 patients will qualify in 2001. So not only will medical marijuana not be easy to come by, but it also won’t be very profitable, either. A few months ago, the City Paper crunched the numbers and found that opening a dispensary alone could cost north of $500,000, and some of the costs involved in growing the marijuana will be prohibitively high. If the program does pan out, though, the District will likely take in $558,000 between 2011 to 2014.

Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told us that he was disappointed that the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana wasn’t expanded. Currently, only patients with five conditions qualify: HIV, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. MPP wanted patients with “debilitating chronic pain” to be included, as well as those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, conditions associated with nausea and vomiting, and appetite loss and wasting syndromes.

Otherwise, Riffle said he thought that District agencies did a “fantastic job.” They “listened to everybody and took constructive suggestions,” he said of the rule-making process.

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Johnny Green

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