After months of delay, Mayor Vince Gray announced this afternoon that the rules and regulations governing the District's medical marijuana program will go into effect on Friday, April 15 when they're published in the D.C. Register. The news comes as advocates of the program have started complaining loudly about delays in its implementation, which dates back almost a year.
"District residents suffering from painful conditions like cancer and HIV/AIDS will soon have one more option to help relieve their symptoms," Gray said in a statement released to DCist. "In addition, the regulations published today will put in place the structure necessary to allow registered parties to grow and sell medical marijuana in a safe and medically appropriate manner. These regulations are among the most comprehensive anywhere in the country and are intended to describe the rights and obligations of patients, growers and sellers clearly."
The District's medical marijuana program was originally endorsed by 69 percent of voters in a 1998 referendum, but congressional interference prohibited the city from actually implementing it. In late 2009, Democrats allowed the District to move forward with the program. It was only last year that the D.C. Council got around to passing enabling legislation that was given the go-ahead when Congress raised no objections. Last August, a first draft of rules governing the program were published for public comment, and a second version was released in November. Those regulations were submitted to the Council in December, which took no action on them.
As of January, the regulations have been with Gray's office, where they have languished with little indication to advocates or budding entrepreneurs as to when they'd be published in the D.C. Register. Last week, the D.C. Patients' Cooperative, which is looking to open a dispensary and cultivation center in Adams Morgan, sent Gray a letter [PDF] in which the group expressed its exasperation with the long delay in implementing the rules for the program, a delay that had cost it money. "As a result of the obvious inaction by your administration leases that we negotiated over many months are off the table, jobs are not being created and we have spent more than $40,000 on a process that went nowhere," the letter stated.
Montgomery Blair Sibley, who hoped to open a cultivation center along New York Avenue NE, similarly argued that the bureaucratic limbo had affected him. "The delay in implementation of the Medical Marijuana Regulations by Mayor Gray has definitely impacted me," he told DCist. "First, I had to pay [money] to extend my leasehold interests in the warehouse space where I intend to grow medical marijuana. Second, my investors are getting antsy waiting and are drifting away."
The medical marijuana program sketched out by District officials will be more restrictive than similar programs in other states. Only five dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers will be allowed, and each will pay significant fees for licenses and registration. Only patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis will qualify, and will be limited to two ounces a month. Home cultivation will not be permitted, which has rankled advocates and raised a tough question -- where exactly will cultivation centers get seeds to grow the marijuana they will then provide to dispensaries? No clear answers have yet emerged, but at a February townhall on the program, one advocate hinted that plants seized by the Metropolitan Police Department may well be a source. (There's still the unsettled issue of how the feds will respond to the program; a recent raid in Montana and an IRS investigation into the taxes of the country's largest dispensary in California have some local advocates worried.)
Though the District's medical marijuana program finally looks to be approaching reality, it will still be many months before patients can acquire the medicine. The rules are but the first step; next up, the board that will hand out licenses for dispensaries and cultivation centers has to be established, all the while local and national entrepreneurs have to draw up business plans and seek capital to get their projects off the ground.
The rules will be published on an emergency basis on April 15 and adopted in their final form within a month after that.
Update: According to the D.C. Department of Health, applications for individuals looking to run dispensaries and cultivation centers will be available on April 17. One problem, though. If the federal government shuts down and the D.C. employees that actually publish the D.C. Register are not told to come to work, the rules may be delayed for another week.
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D.C. Medical Marijuana Program to Get Off Ground on April 15