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How Do Medical Marijuana Laws Compare In The D.C. Region?

Capital City Care is expected to open this month, which will make it the first active medical marijuana dispensary in the District.
Chris Chester
Capital City Care is expected to open this month, which will make it the first active medical marijuana dispensary in the District.

Maryland has made headlines this week after the state senate voted 42-4 in favor of House Bill 1101, creating a medical marijuana program. While advocates say Maryland's program is a long way from implementation , the first of four medical marijuana dispensaries for chronically ill patients in the District of Columbia is set to open up shop this month.

Capital City Care is located about a mile down the road from the capital building on North Capitol Street. The proximity to Congress helps remind the dispensary's proprietors that while D.C. voters approved medical marijuana in 2010, it is still illegal according to federal law.

General Manager David Guard says attracting the attention of federal law enforcement is not a big concern for them, because D.C.'s program is tightly designed and well-regulated.

"I've surveyed the entire country, and we've seen the best practices and policies," Guard says. "D.C. is hands-down the tightest run, most well-regulated program in the country. They know where they are in relationship to the federal government and they want to make this a model for the country."

Getting in the door

The process for gaining access to medical marijuana in D.C. is largely driven by patients with qualifying conditions, who must attain a referral from their doctor and then apply with the Department of Health. Only residents of the District of Columbia are authorized to submit an application.

Once patients obtain a card, they then register with the dispensary. Capital City Care is already pre-registering patients, and Communications Director Scott Morgan says early interest from those with qualifying conditions has been strong.

With card in hand, registered patients or authorized caregivers can then visit the dispensary, where an off-duty police officer will check their identification. They can then sign in at the reception area.

With exposed brick on the wall and lightly-colored hardwood floors, it resembles the waiting room in an upscale doctor's office.

From the reception area, a staff member will then usher patients into a second room, secured with a biometric lock, where they are able to purchase up to 2 ounces of marijuana per month.

Capital City Care is the only medical marijuana operation in the District to obtain both a cultivation and dispensary license, and Communications Director Scott Morgan says they plan to carry between 4 to 8 different strains to cater to different patient needs.

"You have to keep in mind that the medical benefits really do depend on the strain and on the person," Morgan says. "The strain that works best on Patient A might not work well on Patient B, even if they have the same condition."

Since cultivators are limited to 95 plants and the true number of qualifying patients is not yet known, there are some questions about supply and demand. Morgan expects it will remain relatively affordable.

"It's going to end up being similar to the prices that you see marijuana sold for in other marijuana states across the country," Morgan says. "So probably in the neighborhood of $100 to $120 per quarter ounce."

Morgan expects their doors will be open to patients some time in April.

The larger regional context for medical marijuana

Maryland's medical marijuana program looks quite different from the one taking shape in D.C. It creates a state commission that will oversee bids from academic medical research centers to administer medical marijuana programs for their patients.

After gaining approval from the state, research centers can attain marijuana from either federally-run operations or state-licensed growers. Doctors can then administer the medicine at their discretion, in terms of both the medical conditions that apply and the quantity prescribed.

Despite the legislative momentum, Dan Riffle with the Marijuana Policy Project says his optimism is restrained.

"It remains to be seen how long it will take to be implemented, if it ever really will be fully implemented," Riffle says. "For now, I don't necessarily count it amongst the ranks of medical marijuana states."

That is because there is some uncertainty as to whether academic medical research centers, which often rely on federal money, will submit bids to the program. It's also unclear whether state-licensed growers will materialize.

Delaware also passed a medical marijuana bill in 2011, at the time considered one of the most progressive in the country by advocates, but it has yet to put into practice.

"Delaware’s law is probably the best in the region, but it hasn’t been fully implemented yet because the governor had received some indication from the state attorney general that medical marijuana runs contrary to federal law," says Riffle.

Riffle notes that no state employee has ever been arrested for administering a state medical marijuana program, but for now the program remains dormant.


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