December 12, 2012 at 4:24 pm EST | by Mark Lee
All they want for Christmas is their medical pot

Bongs and bouquets – both won big last month.

The national election was a watershed event for both same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. These issues distinguished electoral returns amid little change to the federal political scene.

Voters approved ballot initiatives legalizing each in two states – Maryland on marriage, Colorado on recreational marijuana use, and Washington state on both. Massachusetts, which had already decriminalized personal marijuana use, also became the 18th state, along with the District, to approve medicinal cannabis dispensing.

Respective advocates celebrated inaugural legalization approvals at the polls for either consumer marijuana use or civil marriage equality. Dual wins were a ballot breakthrough for both and epitomized evolving attitudes on each.

When D.C. voters approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative in 1998, few anticipated that counterparts elsewhere would legalize the drug for general usage before the city would implement its medicinal program.

When St. Nick hits town for his annual holiday visit, the long-stemmed pipe traditionally depicted protruding from his mouth will again be empty of any special substance.

It remains a violation of local law to procure or possess pot for either pain or pleasure.

Three years ago, Congress finally ended a nine-year ban on the medical marijuana measure passed with 69 percent voter endorsement. It was expected that the city would establish a distribution program no later than late 2011 or at least early this year.

However, with the D.C. government implementation plan encountering obstacles and delays at every turn, it will likely be most of the year before the first ounce of pot is distributed to a qualified patient. Not a single sanctioned marijuana plant is yet growing for harvest.

Following D.C. Council approval of enabling legislation in 2010, it took the District government nearly a year to release the rulemaking necessary to move the program forward. City officials counseled patience at the time, given the inherent conflict with federal drug laws, despite the compassionate purpose. While D.C. Council member and Committee on Health Chair David Catania was widely credited for wisely marshaling a cautious and deliberate course, program parameter limitations became an unfortunate byproduct.

As a result, the plan established the nation’s most restrictive patient qualifications – limited to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis – and allowed a modest monthly prescription quantity, prohibited in-home cultivation and established only a small number of cultivation and distribution centers. The regulatory requirements for participating businesses are strict and necessitate signing waivers releasing the city from legal complicity should the federal government prosecute a crackdown.

The country’s capital was acknowledged to be a notably inconvenient jurisdiction to challenge federal law, along with the other state programs in operation and with much less stringent policies. As it turned out, such fears proved well founded.

The Obama administration startled patient caregivers and medical marijuana advocates by backtracking on a campaign pledge to take a “hands-off” approach on the issue. The Justice Department began utilizing multiple federal agencies and its own powers to initiate scattershot selective attacks prosecuting programs and issued dire warnings of further enforcement. The president’s policy became surprisingly schizophrenic and injected serious concern of intensified drug wars.

Making matters worse, the city bestowed Advisory Neighborhood Commissions with direct influence in approval of growing and giving locations. At the beginning of the year, D.C. Council members representing the few areas both appropriately zoned and with suitable building stock for marijuana cultivation centers objected to their location there. Quarreling at the Wilson Building resulted in a cap on the number of growing centers allowed in churlish-chip-on-its-shoulder Ward 5 in Northeast Washington. Subsequent seemingly endless reviews of business proposals further hampered and delayed progress.

There is now real fear that the program, once underway, will not generate sufficient product to match even the limited number eligible to participate. Ten planned cultivation centers have devolved to only six. A 95 plant limit at each, designed to lessen any federal liabilities, exacerbates the supply situation. Interaction with illicit drug dealers remains a more viable ongoing option with each passing day.

It’s enough to make Santa cry.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at

  • >"Not a single sanctioned marijuana plant is yet growing for harvest."

    Incorrect. Irvin Rosenfeld and a few others have been receiving federal MMJ every month for over the past thirty years.

  • @Jayelle Farmer: Apples and Oranges – I think Mr. Lee is saying that the plants to be grown that are the only allowed source of marijuana for the local DC med pot program have not yet started being grown at cultivation locations, which is true.

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