October 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
D.C. decriminalization must preserve medical pot
marijuana, U.S. Capitol building, gay news, Washington Blade, decriminalization

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Referenced as the “new gay marriage” issue, momentum for expanding the national embrace of marijuana is as ubiquitous as that of same-sex marriage. This “evolution” — even if initially limited to decriminalization and not full legalization in many states — is likely to see greater success on a quicker schedule.

Due to a looming “wall” of state-level legal obstacles confronting same-sex marriage proponents, pot normalization may soon outpace the advance of marriage equality. Although same-sex marriage efforts have scored additional state victories in the wake of Supreme Court rulings last summer, further expansion is approaching a political plateau and perhaps decade-or-more slog toward nationwide acceptance. Pot smokers probably won’t have to wait that long.

Both reforms enjoy majority nationwide support for the first time. In fact, nearly 60 percent now endorse fully legalizing pot — a larger percentage than favoring gay nuptials. While both undertakings currently enjoy parity in public approval and in the number of states adopting policies that reflect accelerating shifts in opinion, consumer pot faces an easier path.

In D.C., October suddenly became “marijuana month” as public attention focused on two local developments.

First was the revelation that the city’s long-delayed medical marijuana program had become an unexpected bust due to startlingly low participation, endangering the viability of the few product cultivation and patient dispensary businesses already approved and in operation. With less than 100 current or in-the-pipeline patient applications, and no more than 2.5 percent of practicing local physicians expressing interest in recommending treatment for the handful of allowed ailments, it is not clear that any of the businesses are financially viable. At present, the program is not a sustainable enterprise.

Legislation introduced by D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot simultaneously hit the headlines and garnered national attention. With the support of at least 10 of 13 legislators and the announcement by Mayor Vincent Gray that he approves of the effort, passage by year-end seems assured.

The bill eliminates criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. A token civil fee of $25 would replace the current maximum punishment of six months in jail and $1,000 fine. It would also shield an infraction from public record, eliminating the effect on employment or other liabilities.

D.C. will join 15 states that have decriminalized pot possession. Two states, Colorado and Washington, will soon finalize regulations and initiate rules for legalized marijuana use approved by voters last November. Efforts to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana in additional states are gaining steam and legalization-by-ballot in California may be decided by voters in 2016.

With a recent poll indicating 62 percent of District voters favor full legalization, an effort to qualify a ballot initiative — also legalizing home cultivation of marijuana — may soon be launched. Backers are waiting to see what effect passage of the “legal-lite” law may have on support for their effort.

Once marijuana is decriminalized in D.C., whether the city’s medical marijuana program is further imperiled is unclear. It certainly won’t help.

Many posit that patient need is largely fulfilled on the underground marketplace. Requiring registration with the government and acknowledgement that the activity is illegal under federal law are also known to be barriers for both patients and doctors. It is unlikely that proposals to expand the ailments eligible for treatment will generate sufficient engagement necessary to sustain a robust number of commercial providers.

The market for medical marijuana may only support one, perhaps two, dispensaries. Only time will tell. It is unreasonable, however, to relegate patients to required illicit acquisition.

District officials must continue to maintain a medicinal marijuana program, no matter how small, offering economic underwriting if required until no longer needed or federal marijuana prohibition finally ends.

Medical pot programs may soon become a quaint relic of a transitional era. But until then, marijuana as medicine must be preserved.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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