May 30, 2013 at 8:18 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Will pot normalization overshadow med program?
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Pot is almost certain to infuse next year’s D.C. mayoral and Council campaigns. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Marijuana is almost certain to infuse next year’s D.C. mayoral and Council campaigns.

Meanwhile, the city’s long-delayed medical marijuana program still struggles to get off the ground. The opening of the District’s first dispensary has been pushed back again, until sometime this summer when cultivation center-grown product becomes available and patients receive authorization cards following city approval of a doctor recommendation form. Already there have been complaints that the recently launched approval system has lagged in processing patient requests.

It’s been a tortuous road to this point – following voter sanction of the nation’s still most restrictive program in 1998 with 69 percent in favor, a nine-year prohibition on implementation by Congress, subsequent D.C. Council approval in 2009, and nearly four years waiting for the city to finally launch distribution to the few patients eligible to participate on the basis of applicable ailment.

That process was further delayed by the opposition of Council members representing the city’s political wards where available and undeveloped industrial-zoned land and buildings appropriate for growing marijuana exist. Limiting the location and number of cultivation centers by shamelessly characterizing the harvest of medicine as suitable only for a “dumping ground,” sufficient product quantity to meet the eventual patient demand remains a problem.

The rapid public shift in attitude engendering normalization of marijuana use here and elsewhere, however, threatens to render medical use programs ultimately irrelevant.

With voter approval of marijuana legalization in two states last November and quick progress in implementing state-sanctioned and taxed sales, along with decriminalization in nearly a third of states and only selective enforcement in others, the federal government faces a difficult choice: either launch a crackdown attempt or cede defeat on the leafy terrain of the most unpopular portion of the “war on drugs.”

One of two announced D.C. mayoral candidates, Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells, plans to introduce legislation this summer decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot. Three other legislators have already announced that they support such a law, and Wells has expressed hope that a majority of his colleagues will co-sponsor a bill. At-Large Council member David Grosso, having been arrested in 1993 at the age of 22 for possessing marijuana in Florida, has publicly called for considering outright legalization.

A recent local poll indicates overwhelming support for decriminalization by 75 percent of D.C. voting-age residents, despite oversampling those over 45 years old. A plurality of 42 percent endorsed legalization for possession of small amounts sold and taxed by licensed stores, with an additional 21 percent “somewhat” in support. Only one-quarter would “strongly” oppose legalization.

Even those Council members hesitant to embrace decriminalization are publicly expressing concerns regarding the striking racial and socio-economic disparities in enforcement and the impact of an arrest record for what remains classified as a “most-dangerous” federal Schedule 1 substance.

If not approved by the Council, reform advocates are pledging to put a referendum question on the ballot. D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson has indicated he would be fine with that – although hesitant to rile up Congress to intervene against legislative action, he cedes that voter approval might not provoke the same response.

Possession of personal-use amounts of marijuana will eventually be as commonplace as medical marijuana programs are now. A dramatic change in public attitudes over a relatively short period of time exceeds even the growing support for marriage equality.

Deriving tax revenues from the manufacture and sale of a substance popular with a large percentage of the public will grow to be as intoxicating to government as the smell of a lit joint is to those who inhale it.

The question for many will become whether it is necessary to purchase marijuana from an illegal marketplace source while facing a nominal or nonexistent penalty, or whether pot will be available at commercial retail locations.

When that happens, medical marijuana dispensaries will seem as quaint as marijuana prohibition is now.

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

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