May 5, 2011 | by Mark Lee
D.C. gives ANCs ‘great weight’ on medical marijuana

The long slog to implementing medical marijuana distribution in D.C. continues to progress at an excruciatingly glacial pace. But that is not the most disturbing development in the District’s ongoing preparatory process for licensing businesses to open and operate.

A voter initiative approved by 69 percent of D.C. voters in 1998 took one step closer to becoming reality in late 2009 when Congress ended a nine-year ban on implementing the law. Following subsequent D.C. Council approval of enabling legislation last year and the slow-moving and nearly year-long District bureaucracy’s release of rulemaking for implementing the law, most observers consider it likely that D.C. will finally see the opening of up to five dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers later this year or in early 2012.

Although District regulations establish the most restrictive limitations compared to the 15 states that have legalized medical marijuana, D.C. has been commended by many advocates for taking a necessarily cautious approach regarding who qualifies for treatment and who may prescribe treatment. This despite the startling limitation permitting inclusion of only those suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, modest allowed monthly quantity, prohibition against home cultivation, expensive licensing fees and small number of available business licenses all proving controversial.

When the D.C. government issued revised regulations late last month it went largely unnoticed that an additional entity would account for up to 50 points in the scoring system to qualify and select the businesses and locations to be licensed. This entity accounts for 50 points on a scale of only 250 requiring a minimum score of 200 to be eligible for consideration.

The same people with undue influence and the ability to stall and deny by delay the licensing approval of bars, restaurants and nightclubs – small neighborhood-centric councils known as Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) – are to be granted “great weight” and an extraordinary business applicant scoring recommendation under District government licensing rules now in the pipeline to prepare for the eventual regulatory consideration of applicants.

ANCs are given the power to base their scoring comments on the “potential adverse impact of the proposed business location to the neighborhood, an overconcentration or lack of cultivation centers or dispensaries in the affected ward and its proximity to substance abuse treatment centers, day care centers and halfway houses.”

Of course, it has become widely evident to an increasingly incredulous public in recent years how easily ANCs have been able to shoehorn almost any complaint into the applicable regulatory context.

Ironically, the actual influence of ANCs concerning liquor license matters has diminished in the past several years. To their chagrin, this is a result of a consistently buffoonish overreach as self-perceived turf overlords (they are, after all, “advisory” in nature, not real-life legislators charged with either establishing or implementing governing regulations), coupled with push-back from a citizenry no longer amused (or, in the case of newer residents, “shocked and appalled” is more accurate) by their over-the-top antics and derailment of robust neighborhood environments and desired community social amenities. ANCs still manage, however, to wreak havoc over most of that they touch.

Throw in instances of conflict-of-interest, questionable decision-making procedures, missing and mismanaged public funds, “pay-to-play” investment trade-offs for regulatory support, personal aggrandizement, rule-bending inconsistencies and an absence of oversight to the mix — do we, ahem, really want these people deciding matters regarding legal drug distribution?

Licensing rules emanating from Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration to extend power to ANCs in the approval of licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers should be a huge disappointment to advocates and healthcare professionals.

More than that, it should anger us all, as the revised and newly-added direct influence of ANCs in the licensing process appears more a move by an unexpectedly and suddenly weakened politician designed to curry favor with the usual squeaky wheels.

Giving the likes of 1960s “Bewitched” television series neighborhood busybody Gladys Kravitz a nearly veto power over the location and licensing of patient medical establishments makes no good sense. Unless we want to prevent their opening, preclude their opening in convenient and safe locations throughout the city or hide them away like the city decreed for gay strip clubs.

We all know how that turned out.

(Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com. His column, “Our Business Matters,” appears bi-weekly in the Blade.)

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