December 25, 2009 at 2:45 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
City cautious on medical marijuana

The Whitman-Walker Clinic has joined D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large) and city Attorney General Peter Nickles in expressing caution over how and when the city should implement a 1998 law that legalizes medical marijuana in the District.

Congress last week ended its nine-year ban on allowing the law to take effect when it approved a D.C. appropriations bill that didn’t include a rider blocking the law. District voters approved the law in a 1998 ballot initiative that passed with 69 percent of the vote.

“More than anything else, this is regarded as a very favorable turn of events,” said Thomas Kujawski, an official with the National Association for People With AIDS.

Kujawski said recent studies have shown that marijuana is especially helpful in alleviating side effects from powerful antiretroviral drugs used by AIDS patients, such as nausea and a painful nerve condition called peripheral neuropathy.

Catania, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Health, has said he favors legal use of marijuana for medical purposes, but believes the Council and the city’s Department of Health should carefully craft implementing rules before rushing to put the law into effect.

Nickles told the Washington Post last week that he has asked his staff to review whether the nine-year lag time since voters approved the law would prevent it from withstanding a legal challenge.

On a separate issue, Nickles and D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray (D-At Large) said the city’s Home Rule charter requires the city to submit the law to Congress for a required review of 30 legislative days, just as all new D.C. laws must be subjected to such a review.

But D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), disputed that view, saying Congress’s decision to lift its hold on the law amounted to a tacit approval, and the 30-day review would be an unnecessary redundancy. Congress blocked the law, known as Ballot Initiative 59, before the city had a chance to submit it for the normal congressional review.

Other city hall observers noted that while Gray and Norton hash out whether to send the law to Capitol Hill for congressional review, city officials were quietly expressing concern over whether the city government or private non-profit groups should take the lead in cultivating and distributing marijuana for medical purposes.

According to the text of Initiative 59, “All seriously ill individuals have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes” when a licensed physician determines it’s necessary for treatment and prescribes its use.

The law says that residents of the city “may organize and operate non-for-profit corporations for the purpose of cultivating, purchasing, and distributing marijuana exclusively for the medical use of patients.” It says the director of the D.C. Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs shall arrange for such non-profit corporations to be exempt from taxes that for-profit corporations normally must pay.

When asked if the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which serves as the city’s largest treatment facility for people with HIV and AIDS, would consider prescribing medical marijuana for its patients, Clinic spokesperson Chip Lewis told DC Agenda that it was too soon to make such a decision.

“Whitman-Walker Clinic believes that everyone living with HIV/AIDS or other chronic conditions should have access to legal medications under a physician’s care,” Lewis said. “If this law does take effect, we will have to do some thoughtful and careful planning, looking at current standards of care, before we could implement any program.”

Currently, medical marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state.

Kujawski pointed to a study reported in the February 2007 edition of the medical journal Neurology, which found that smoked marijuana was “well tolerated” and “effectively relieved chronic neuropathic pain from HIV-associated sensory neuropathy.”

He said the condition typically causes tingling or burning sensations in the limbs of AIDS patients. Experts aren’t sure if the condition is caused by HIV itself or is brought on by various antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV.

“Anything that is going to result in improved health outcomes for individuals and/or anything that’s going to help support their adherence to their medical treatment regimens, we’re highly supportive of,” he said.

D.C. gay and AIDS activist Wayne Turner and his late domestic partner, Steve Michael, who died of AIDS months before Initiative 59 came before voters, have been credited with starting efforts to place the issue on the ballot. Turner was among the lead campaign organizers for the initiative.

He praised the Democratic controlled Congress for removing its hold on the law and has called on the city government to put the law in place as soon as possible.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

1 Comment
  • I am fully in favor of legalizing medical marijuana across the country ASAP. Medical marijuana is highly effective in a wide variety of medical conditions, and one really does not need to be a big-time scientist to know that it strongly stimulates appetite, making it very useful in many forms of malnutrition, and its usefulness in pain control would allow to reduce the doses of strong pain-killer opiates that are REALLY unsafe in terms of overdoses and severe physical dependence. Medical marijuana is a potent reducer of intra-ocular pressure, and can prove to be a vision-saver for some patients with difficult to control glaucoma. At the same time medical marijuana has not had one single instance of fatal overdose, and it does not have a physical withdrawal, so when the “opponents” claim that it is “not safe”, it is not clear to me what they mean. With 81% of Americans in favor of medical marijuana, one is surprised that it is still not legal everywhere in the US. Surely, there will be some abuses, but they will not be any more widespread or any more dangerous than the abuse of current controlled substances such as opiate painkillers and sleeping and nerve pills that is ongoing and quite alarming. I would like to refer the prosecutor who opposes the legalization of medical marijuana to the prestigious Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, 4-th Edition that clearly states on page 267 that cannabis use suppresses instead of inciting, a violent crime, and that only the “unsophisticated” think otherwise. On 3-19-10 the CNN reported that many States’ budgets are so stressed that thousands of non-violent criminals are being released early. How about a quick word of advice: Stop arresting patients with serious medical conditions who need medical marijuana to alleviate their suffering, as well as those who, at risk for themselves, provide for this need.

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