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Push For Expanded Medical Marijuana Program Draws Mixed Reactions From D.C.

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Medical marijuana is available to residents suffering from 10 conditions, but advocates want to scrap the list and leave the decision to doctors.
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Medical marijuana is available to residents suffering from 10 conditions, but advocates want to scrap the list and leave the decision to doctors.

Patients, advocates and legislators are pushing D.C. to expand its medical marijuana program by adding more conditions and allowing cultivators to grow more plants, but the proposals have drawn mixed reactions from city officials.

At a hearing on Thursday, members of the D.C. Council heard testimony on two bills, one that would scrap the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana and a second that would allow licensed cultivators to grow up to 500 plants, up from the current 95 allowed.

The first bill drew support from patients whose conditions are not among those that currently qualify for medical marijuana, including Kristin Farthing, a resident who suffers from endometriosis. Despite a recent move by the D.C. Department of Health to expand the list of conditions from four to 10 — it now includes epilepsy, Lou Gehrig's disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, among others — Farthing's gynecological condition does not make her eligible for medical marijuana.

"Since last October, in part because I cannot access medical marijuana, I have been much sicker, missing many more days of work and giving up on more and more of the rest of my life — seeing friends, exercising, volunteering at various community events," she testified, saying that neither surgery nor a variety of legal drugs had helped her.

"The current process leaves many citizens, including me, without legal access to a drug that is safer, more effective and has fewer side effects than the drug frequently given to patients with serious health needs," she said.

Joxel García, the director of the Department of Health, said that he supports the bill, which was co-sponsored by a majority of the Council's members.

"The department supports legislation that permits the expansion of the qualifying medical conditions to mean any condition for which use of medical marijuana may be beneficial as determined between the patient and their physician," he said.

Where García differed from the legislators and advocates was on a bill allowing licensed cultivators to grow 500 plants, up from the 95 currently allowed. He said that the program is too small — only 412 patients have registered since medical marijuana was made available last July — to handle that much marijuana.

"We believe that the absolute supply and demand doesn’t merit an increase to 500," he said. "We are concerned that everyone would go to 500… it’s like any other business, you buy too much supply and there’s no demand, the business goes south."

Cultivators said that increasing the plant limit would allow them to offer more strains and types of marijuana, including edible products, which take more marijuana to produce. Currently, no cultivators have applied for licenses to produce edibles.

There are three dispensaries and three cultivation centers in D.C., though a second round of application is wrapping up. Current law allows five dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers.

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