At the risk of being considered a buzz-kill, be forewarned. There may not be enough pot to go around.
Recent developments have resulted in a growing concern that the city’s long-delayed medical marijuana program – again deferred and now anticipated to get off the ground sometime around the beginning of next year – will produce insufficient product to meet the needs of the number of patients expected to be authorized to participate. At a minimum, limited availability is likely to affect product affordability and may result in eligible patients deciding to forego cost-prohibitive pricing not covered by health insurance.
It has already been a long path to a pending launch. Meanwhile, those in need of medical relief continue to wait – and suffer.
It took 11 years for Congress to step aside and allow the results of a 1998 D.C. voter initiative with 69 percent of voters approving medical marijuana use by District residents to proceed.
Two years ago this month, D.C. Council member and Committee on Health chair David Catania skillfully maneuvered final approval by his colleagues of an intentionally and decidedly limited city-regulated medical marijuana program. The strategically cautious plan approved by the D.C. Council significantly restricts medical ailment qualification, imposes strict prescription requirements, establishes vendor cultivation limits, and regulates production and distribution sites. The local law is considered the most narrowly structured program in the country.
This is, of course, the nation’s capital and under unique federal purview, marijuana possession and use remains illegal, and last year President Obama startled health advocates by reversing policy and ordering federal agencies to prosecute state-sanctioned program operations.
D.C. regulations limit each of a maximum 10 cultivation centers to growing 95 plants each, in order to avoid heightened criminal sanctions against business operators granted authority by the District government to produce marijuana for patient distribution at a maximum of five dispensaries.
However, opposition by neighborhood leaders in Ward 5 resulted in the D.C. Council earlier this year restricting the number of cultivation centers allowed in a single ward. The area, almost exclusively consisting of parts of Northeast Washington with plentiful commercial and industrial sites, represents much of the available existing structures and appropriately zoned property also providing the required distance from schools and meeting a multitude of other requirements. Twenty-six of the 28 original cultivation business applications were for sites located in the ward.
Citizens groups in other parts of the city have also fought placement of both cultivation and distribution business locations, with a North Capitol Street citizens association going so far as to claim that their neighborhood was “too dangerous” and would imperil patients traveling to the area to pick up their prescriptions. No word yet on how that disingenuous claim may have affected neighborhood property values.
The D.C. Council more recently imposed an additional restriction on a production facility location in Ward 7, disqualifying an approved cultivation center business applicant now required to find an alternate site.
As a result, only six cultivation center businesses have been licensed by the city – all to be located in Ward 5 and representing the maximum number allowed in any ward.
In addition, four dispensary locations are currently being reviewed by jurisdictional Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), with decisions regarding whether these applicants will be granted licensing expected later this summer.
The potential distribution dispensaries subject to final licensing consideration and the ill-advised additional review by ANCs, although currently one short of the maximum allowed under city law, are under the circumstances conveniently situated and geographically dispersed despite being few in number.
The shortage of marijuana growing facilities is the problematic aspect threatening the functional viability of the entire program. This unfortunate limitation – a result of spineless elected officials succumbing to the irrational fears and unreasonable demands of neighborhood opponents – may seriously undermine the success of the long-awaited availability of medical marijuana and preclude affordable access by qualifying patients.
Despite all the waiting and strategically sensitive planning, carefully designed implementation processes and subsequent weathering of Council-approved setbacks, the new danger is that once this Department of Health program is finally initiated there won’t be enough product available to meet even the needs of those relative few who will qualify for its use.
That is the real bummer.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.