Swift Action Sought on D.C. Medical Marijuana

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said Monday that he wants to move swiftly to establish regulations for distributing medical marijuana now that Congress has voted to lift restrictions on city drug policy.

Gray said the council will use Initiative 59, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 1998, to begin crafting a policy that allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients with serious illnesses.

“We’ve waited 10 years. . . . I think the opportunity to send it is now,” Gray said. “There is no reason to sit on it.”

But one day after Congress voted to lift the Barr amendment, there was widespread confusion across city government about how the policy might be implemented.

Attorney General Peter Nickles said Monday that he has instructed his staff to review whether the council can use Initiative 59 to legalize medical marijuana or whether it is too dated to withstand legal scrutiny.

Even if it is valid, Nickles said, under home rule the initiative would still have to survive a 30-day congressional review period because the original proposal was never sent to Capitol Hill.

But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who played a key role in having the amendment removed in the spending bill, said she doesn’t think the measure needs to go back before Congress.

In making its decision to remove the Barr amendment, Norton said Congress was under the assumption that the city would use administrative regulations to implement its medical-marijuana policy.

“Congress thought they were simply taking the ban off and the District would simply proceed or not proceed,” Norton said. “After all we have gone through, I can tell you, the Congress is not anxious to see this issue here again. It’s taken me 10 years.”

Norton said she cannot guarantee that Congress would not try to block medical marijuana if the issue appeared before it without being entangled in a massive government spending bill.

But Gray said he doubts the House and Senate would intervene if the issue lands before them. He noted that Congress has passed only three disapproval resolutions on council bills since home rule began in 1973.

During the congressional review period, Gray said that city health and public safety officials would begin establishing regulations on how the marijuana should be prescribed and distributed.

The biggest question facing city leaders is whether the city or another organization should get into the business of growing and distributing marijuana.

Thirteen states allow for medical marijuana. But Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said many of those state laws call for patients to grow their own marijuana, or to designate someone to legally grow it for them, to avoid government involvement in the cultivation of an illegal substance.

But Mirken noted that California, New Mexico and, beginning next year, Rhode Island and Maine have embraced policies that allow for the creation of government-sanctioned distribution centers.

Mirken says that strategy — made easier by the Obama administration’s pledge not to use federal law to arrest medical marijuana distributors — makes more sense for the District.

“The grow-your-own provisions simply don’t work for everybody, particularly in urban areas,” Mirken said. “We think a regulated system of dispensaries is ideal, but there needs to be rules. It shouldn’t just be a free-for-all.”

On Monday, the medical community was also scrambling to examine the ramifications of legalizing medical marijuana in the District.

The Whitman-Walker Clinic, which specializes in treating and preventing HIV/AIDS, was a key sponsor of putting Initiative 59 on the ballot.

But clinic spokesman Chip Lewis said Whitman-Walker would still have to undertake an extensive study of medical marijuana before it could recommend that any of its patients use the drug.

“Whitman-Walker believes people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic medical conditions should have access to any legal medication under physician treatment,” Lewis said. “But we would have to do some careful planning and thought . . . around the issues of care before we could implement anything.”

Marijuana growers are also following events at city hall closely.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he has received more than two dozen e-mails or phone calls since late last week from marijuana growers or distributors who want to do business in the nation’s capital.

“There are probably at least 20 of these cannabis shop owners on the West Coast that have a dead-eye target on the District,” St. Pierre said. “Over the weekend, we must have gotten 20 to 30 e-mails or phone messages from people I would say are entrepreneurs.”

– Article from The Washington Post.