Pubdate: Mon, 30 Dec 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Becca Clemons, Tribune Newspapers


Outlets Have Seen Just More Than 100 Patients, but Rules Meant 'To
Keep the Feds Calm' May Ease

WASHINGTON - The tidy Takoma Wellness Center, one of the first medical
marijuana dispensaries to open in the nation's capital, has a quaint
reception area furnished with black leather chairs, plants and
artwork. On the front desk are a pile of business cards and a sign-in

In the back, shelves are stocked with the latest marijuana
accessories: pipes, cookbooks, even a machine that mixes the drug into
butter or oil for cooking.

All that's missing are patients.

Since opening this summer, the three Washington-based marijuana
dispensaries have served a total of 111 patients in a district with
about 600,000 residents.

That's about 100 times fewer patients, on a per capita basis, than
states such as California or Oregon, where the drug can also be
legally used to alleviate illnesses.

Not surprisingly, all three of the dispensaries say they are losing

"I think there was general expectation that the numbers would be
higher," said Jeffrey Kahn, owner of Takoma Wellness Center. The low
numbers reflect a medical marijuana program considered the most
restrictive in the U.S.

Patients can get prescriptions only from doctors with whom they have
had an ongoing relationship, and only if they suffer from one of four
conditions: HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, cancer or severe muscle spasms, such
as those caused by multiple sclerosis.

Although three dispensaries have opened, the law allows up to

To visit one, patients must register with the health department, make
an appointment and show a district-issued identification card to pass
through security.

That's a stark contrast from California, where patient registration is
voluntary, doctors use their own judgment to determine whether medical
pot can relieve an ailment, and some dispensaries are steps from the
beach or deliver to a patient's door.

In other states, the list of qualifying conditions is longer. A law
passed in Illinois this year included 30 ailments.

"They deliberately have the most buttoned-down laws in the country,"
said Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA. He said the
district's strict rollout of medical marijuana reflected a desire by
local officials "to keep the feds calm."

For more than a decade, District of Columbia officials struggled to
make medical marijuana available to residents. In 1998, 69 percent of
district voters approved a medical marijuana initiative.

But such efforts were routinely overruled by conservative members of
Congress, who wield unusual influence over the district.

After the 1998 ballot measure, then-Rep. Bob Barr, a Republican from
Georgia, amended the district's budget to keep money from being spent
on the program, effectively blocking it.

But changing attitudes in Congress, as well as in the Justice
Department, have opened the door for the district to quietly begin its
medical pot program.

Even Barr, who left office in 2003, reversed his position after
aligning with libertarians. His newfound opposition to government
intrusion led him to lobby Congress in 2007 on behalf of the Marijuana
Policy Project, a nonprofit group that supports legalization, to
remove his own amendment.

The Barr amendment was removed in 2009, and medical pot became legal
in the district in 2010, drawing little notice from Congress.

By that time, medical cannabis was legal in 14 states. Even when
Colorado and Washington state passed laws legalizing recreational use
last year, Congress said "nothing. Not a whisper," said Kleiman, who
advised Washington state officials on setting up their marijuana program.

The Justice Department subsequently said it would not challenge the
legalization programs as long as they were well-regulated.

That move paved the way for dispensaries in the district to operate
with little fear of federal intervention.

The changed landscape also has advocates confident that Congress will
not object to a proposed local law that would decriminalize the
possession of small amounts of pot.

"Congress is unlikely to step in," said council member Tommy Wells,
who has proposed making possession of 1 ounce or less of pot a civil
offense, subject to a fine as low as $25. The measure, aimed at
curbing a disproportionate number of arrests of African-Americans for
marijuana possession, has support from 10 of 13 council members, as
well as Mayor Vincent Gray. Seventeen states have similar laws.

Council member Yvette Alexander opposes decriminalization, warning
that it could exacerbate the district's drug problem.

"I think it's going to encourage the drug market even more, if there's
no fear of a crime or criminal record," she said.

But Wells predicted that it would be law by spring.

"I was excited about the response - or rather lack of response - by
Congress," said Dan Riffle, lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Everyone gets the message that marijuana is going to be legal sooner
rather than later."  
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