Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states plus DC, as well as countries such as Canada, Israel, and the UK, but it's history has been most complicated in the District. In 1998, two years after California became the first state to approve medical marijuana, DC residents also voted on an initiative. Congress intervened, however, to prevent the votes from even being counted. The courts soon put a stop to that, and when the votes were tallied, the initiative passed overwhelmingly--69 percent to 31 percent. But Congress again stepped in, adding riders to appropriation bills that prevented DC from taking any action to implement the initiative.
The congressional ban was finally lifted in 2009 and the DC Council began drafting legislation; Councilman Catania, who had studied the various state programs, was the principal architect. A public hearing was held in February, 2010, and the lead witness was DOH Director, Dr. Pierre Vigilance, who explained the conditions for which marijuana was known to be helpful, and others for which it might be. About 40 other witnesses also testified in favor of the bill and no one spoke against it.
The DC Council passed the bill unanimously in May, 2010. It is very restrictive--far more than the 1998 initiative had intended--because the Council still fears federal intervention. Only four conditions qualify--HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and MS--and patients are not allowed to grow their own medicine. Also, there can be only 10 cultivation centers, with a limit of 95 plants each, and only five dispensaries. Patients must be DC residents, and they must get a recommendation for medical marijuana from a DC doctor.
In mid-2012 four dispensaries and six cultivation centers were approved but none is yet operating, as the centers are still doing the renovations needed to qualify for an occupancy permit. Since the plants take about 90 days to grow to maturity, it will be at least that long before the first dispensary can open.
Prospective patients and caregivers are concerned about the restrictive list of qualifying conditions, the small number of cultivation centers, and the ban on "growing your own". The most obvious missing condition is pain, as marijuana is extremely effective at relieving some kinds of pain, especially that resulting from nerve damage. Also, six grow centers, with only 570 plants total, are unlikely to be able to meet patient demand, particularly because of the large number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in DC. And the states that allow home growing usually permit three to six plants per patient.
Alert: There will be a public information session about the program at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, December 12, at the National City Christian Church, 5 Thomas Circle (about three blocks north of the McPherson Square Metro). Representatives from the Department of Health (DOH) and Americans for Safe Access will discuss the benefits of medical marijuana and how DC residents can register, and will answer questions from the audience.
(The author is a member of the Steering Committee of Safe Access-DC and was a witness at the DC Council hearing on medical marijuana.)