Advocates for people with AIDS and other serious illnesses breathed a sigh of relief three weeks ago when the first of three dispensaries approved by the D.C. Department of Health to sell medical marijuana opened its doors about a mile north of the U.S. Capitol.
Capital City Care, located in a converted townhouse at 1334 North Capitol St., N.W., sold its first doctor-approved dose of high-grade cannabis to an HIV-positive man on July 29, 15 years after D.C. voters approved a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the nation’s capital.
Medical marijuana advocates in D.C. said initial concerns that dispensaries could only accept payments in cash for a typical purchase of $250 or more and that the dispensaries would be located in unsafe neighborhoods, subjecting buyers to potential muggings, were largely unfounded.
Although the cultivation centers where the marijuana will be grown are in remote warehouse sections of Northeast D.C., most of the dispensaries are expected to open in safe neighborhoods, according to Ben Young, chief of staff for D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who wrote the implementing legislation for the medical marijuana law.
One of the other two dispensaries that have so far been approved for a license, Takoma Park Wellness Center, recently opened in the city’s Takoma Park neighborhood at 6925 Blair Rd., N.W. The other one, Metropolitan Wellness Center, just opened near the Eastern Market Metro station on Capitol Hill at 409 8th St., S.E.
And officials with Capital City Care say they will soon provide a shuttle service to drive patients to and from central locations downtown or to a nearby Metro station. The officials also note that payment for marijuana supplies can be made by bank debit cards, although banks won’t allow patients to pay by credit card or check.
D.C.’s medical marijuana law encountered the first in a series of roadblocks shortly after the 1998 ballot measure passed with nearly 70 percent of the votes cast when Congress intervened by preventing the law from being implemented for more than a decade. When Congress finally lifted its hold on the law in 2009, the City Council and D.C. Department of Health began a laborious process of developing strict rules and procedures for licensing and approving cultivation centers and the dispensaries.
“It’s really gratifying that this 15-year journey has moved to where we are now,” said D.C. attorney Wayne Turner, who, in his role as a gay rights and AIDS activist, was among the leaders of the campaign in support of the 1998 ballot initiative.
“We still have Congress looming over our head,” he said. “And we have an administration that is not that supportive.”
With that as a backdrop, both AIDS activists and D.C. government officials have said the additional four years it has taken to get the medical marijuana program up and running appears to have helped the city avoid some of the pitfalls encountered by medical marijuana programs in other states, such as California and Colorado.
Among the problems encountered by states that legalized medical marijuana in the past were threats by federal law enforcement officials to shut down the cultivation centers and dispensaries and arrest the people operating them by invoking federal drug laws under which marijuana remains illegal.
Federal law enforcement officials have backed down from those threats following strong objections raised by elected officials in the states that have legalized medical marijuana. But with the sale of marijuana for medical purposes set to begin in D.C., banks and credit card companies informed the Capital City Care dispensary that they would not approve payment for marijuana by credit card or check.
“They said the reason is the banks may not be able to file suit and go after someone for a bad debt if the sale is not legal under federal law,” said Patricia Hawkins, an official with the D.C. Community AIDS Network, which is partnering with Capital City Care to provide counseling services for its marijuana clients.
Hawkins, the former deputy director of the then Whitman-Walker Clinic, said banks have agreed to allow Capital City Care and other dispensaries expected to open soon to accept payment by bank debit cards, giving patients the option of paying by debit card or cash.
Meanwhile, spokespersons for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. told the Blade in separate statements that they don’t expect to go after the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation centers for violating federal drug laws.
“The Department of Justice has advised U.S. Attorneys that prosecution of significant drug traffickers, including marijuana, remains a core priority of the Department, but that focusing enforcement efforts on individuals with cancer and other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen likely is not an efficient use of federal resources,” DOJ spokesperson Allison Price told the Blade in an email.
Matthew Jones, a spokesperson for Ronald Machen Jr., the U.S. Attorney for D.C. who serves as the city’s chief prosecutor, released a similar statement to the Blade.
“With respect to medical marijuana, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia will abide by the Justice Department guidance issued to prosecutors that it is not an efficient use of resources to focus enforcement efforts on individual patients with cancer or other serious illnesses, or on individual caregivers who are not engaged in the commercial cultivation, sale, or distribution of marijuana,” Jones said.
Scott Morgan, a spokesperson for Capital City Care, said that under rules established by the D.C. DOH anyone seeking to buy marijuana under the city’s medical marijuana program must meet three requirements. They must have been diagnosed with at least one of several specified illnesses or conditions, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, MS, and glaucoma.
Next, they must be approved for marijuana treatment by a doctor licensed to practice in D.C. and who has been approved by the DOH to refer patients for marijuana treatment. And finally, the patient must be a D.C. resident.
A price list available on the Capital City Care website shows that a variety of strains of marijuana are available but all sell for $380 or more for an ounce. Patients can buy smaller quantities for as low as $20 for a gram.
Although the cost of marijuana on the street through the black market is about the same or possibly a little less, medical marijuana advocates such as Turner caution patients against buying their supplies on the street.
“You don’t know what you’re getting on the street,” Turner said. “Some impurities are mold and mildew. And that is harmful to people with an impaired immune system.”
Morgan said Capital City Care’s cultivation center is operated like a pharmaceutical factory where strict standards of cleanliness and organic growing conditions are employed to ensure that the marijuana is pure and free of contaminants.