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D.C. Legislators Propose Expanding Access To Medical Marijuana

A small sample of medical marijuana available at Capital City Care, D.C.'s first legal dispensary.
Capital City Care
A small sample of medical marijuana available at Capital City Care, D.C.'s first legal dispensary.

A pair of D.C. legislators will introduce a bill on Tuesday that would scrap the list of conditions that can qualify a resident for medical marijuana, and instead allow a doctor to make the determination regardless of what their patient is suffering from.

Under rules currently governing D.C.'s medical marijuana program, only residents with HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, or severe spasms can get medical marijuana; residents recovering from chemotherapy or radiotherapy can also qualify.

But as part of the bill being introduced by Council members Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and David Grosso (I-At Large) tomorrow, a qualifying condition would be defined as "any condition for which treatment with medical marijuana would be beneficial, as determined by the patient’s physician."

The legislation comes in response to complaints of medical marijuana advocates that the city's program is too restrictive, limiting the number of patients and making it difficult for cultivators and dispensers to make ends meet. As of March, fewer than 200 residents had qualified for medical marijuana, roughly a quarter of the 800 that had been expected during the program's first year.

During a hearing in October, residents suffering from conditions other than those currently covered by the city's medical marijuana program urged the Council to act. And last month dispensers and cultivators said they wouldn't be able to stay open unless the program expanded. In mid-March the D.C. Department of Health outlined a process for residents to petition for more conditions to be added, with an advisory committee having the final say.

Under Alexander and Grosso's bill, though, the decision on whether to recommend medical marijuana to a patient would be left to the doctor alone. Alexander, who in the past pushed to keep a cultivation center out of her ward, says that the complaints she had heard convinced her that the decision should not be encumbered by a list of qualifying conditions.

"I'm not a medical professional, and I think we need to leave it in the hands of providers," she says.

Alexander says she was also moved by testimony from residents suffering from conditions like epilepsy, which they said could be treated with medical marijuana. "That's what really encouraged me," she says.

Despite the bill's additional flexibility for doctors, Alexander says she's not worried that the changes would lead to doctors freely writing recommendations for medical marijuana. She says the program's rules still require doctors to register to participate, and requires them to have an ongoing relationship with a patient before writing a recommendation for medical marijuana. The rules also trigger an audit for any one doctor that writes more than 250 recommendations.

Alexander says that she does not predict any trouble in passing it, given that the Council unanimously approved the bill creating the program in 2010 and has recently backed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Alexander was the only dissenting vote on that measure.

Six other Council members are co-sponsoring the bill.

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