Pubdate: Sun, 05 Apr 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Steve Hendrix


Twice a week at the office of Patrick Fasusi, District residents line
up to ask the pain specialist to approve their use of medical
marijuana. For most, the brief wait in the lobby is longer than their

As marijuana, which became legal for recreational use in the nation's
capital in February, continues to morph from contraband to
commonplace, Fasusi's clinic is a window into the ease with which some
residents have been buying officially sanctioned pot for more than two

More than 2,700 people have registered for the city's medical
marijuana program, a number that has more than tripled since summer,
when the D.C. Council relaxed the rules for participation. And many
observers predict that the interest spurred by legalization will lead
even more people to jump through the minor hoops required to obtain an
official medical marijuana card from the city's Department of Health.

The first step is a stop at a sympathetic doctor's office. More than
240 D.C. physicians have applied to participate in the Department of
Health's online system that lets them recommend patients for medical

But fewer doctors are busier, or more open about their work with
medical marijuana patients, than Fasusi, a pain specialist and
neurologist in Northwest Washington. At a clinic, two patients agreed
in March to let a reporter sit in on their consultation as long as
they were not identified.

The first, an unemployed man in his mid-30s, complained of pain
following knee surgery - in 1995- and loss of appetite. Fasusi took
his temperature and blood pressure and asked him a series of
questions. The patient had no other major medical problems, was not on
any medication, did not drink and smoked only marijuana. About 18
minutes later, after examining the knee, the doctor filled out the
health department's electronic application for the card and told the
man to return for a follow-up in four months.

The second patient, a 20-yearold student from the District's Takoma
neighborhood, said she had been battling insomnia for a year and a
half. The sleeplessness was creating anxiety, she said. She had tried
over-the-counter melatonin but had not seen a doctor. "Do you smoke?"
"Actually, I tried marijuana, and that was calming."

He approved her application, as well.

Afterward, the doctor said the two consultations were fairly typical,
although he said most of his patients have seen other doctors about
their medical conditions before they come to him.

Fasusi, a strong advocate of medicinal marijuana, wrote more than
1,000 cannabis recommendations in 2014. City regulations call for an
audit of any physician who writes more than 250, andthe doctor said he
was called before a Department of Health panel last year. They asked
questions but did not tellhimto change his practice, and they noted
that the 250 number was not meant as a limit, he said. The department
said it could not comment on a specific physician's prescribing habits.

"They were very, very supportive," Fasusi said. "They wanted more
information about how the program works." A dizzying display of pot

Now that it is legal for any District resident to smoke marijuana in
the home, some pot professionals say more recreational users will take
notice of the availability of medical cannabis. Indeed, Fasusi said he
has seen a slight uptick in interest since legalization took effect.

"It's really not difficult to register and get your cannabis card,"
said Vanessa West, general manager of the Metropolitan Wellness
Center, in remarks to a downtown marijuana expo in February. "The
Department of Health has made it, inmy mind, rather easy."

For those who obtain a physician's recommendation, the next stop is a
visit to one of the city's three official medical cannabis
dispensaries. Each participant is assigned a dispensary, and there are
no better places to observe the dizzying makeover of marijuana than in
these shops, where a brisk and lawful trade has been going on for more
than a year.

Chris Minar works the front desk of the TakomaWellness Center, the
largest of the three. Minar was a D.C. police officer for 28 years,
including eight years running "buy-and-bust" stings against small-time
pot dealers. Now, when people show up to buy marijuana, he greets them
by name and offers them coffee.

"Tarik, how you doing?" he asked one afternoon not long ago as Tarik
Davis, a 33-year-old musician who uses cannabis for back spasms,
entered the waiting room. "How's your mother?"

Minar took a part-time job in security here after retiring from the
force. So did Darrell Green, the 6-foot-4 former D.C. police officer
selling grams of Blue Dream and Sativa Afghani at the rear counter
(debit cards accepted).

The decor at Takoma Wellness is a blend of spa lobby and head shop,
and the place proudly reeks with a pungency that was once the mark of
locked dorm rooms and dark rock concerts. The rear sales room offers a
glimpse of what a retail pot market might look like: well-lighted
cases lined with fat green buds. Blue Dream sells for $21agram; Merry
'n' Berryfor $22. A small pre-rolled joint of Blue Kush goes for $13.

"It's still a little mind-numbing when they walk into a place like
this," said Jeffrey Kahn, a rabbi who served four congregations from
Australia to New Jersey before opening Takoma Wellness with his wife,
Stephanie, their two sons and a daughter-in-law. "It's just a total
paradigm shift."

In the first months of medical marijuana, the enterprise was clouded
by the suspicion and reticence that has long marked pot's black-market
status. Neighbors were wary. One early participant came in with his
hat pulled low over dark glasses, suspecting a sting. When a
documentary film crew came by in early 2014, the staff could not find
a single participant willing to go on camera.

But the Kahns hired former police officers to reassure neighbors and
coached them to make clients feel welcome. ("At first, when they would
answer the phone, we'd have to tell them, 'Not your cop voice,' "
Stephanie said.) Andslowly, as more than 1,000 D.C. residents have
registered with the city's Department ofHealth to buy cannabis at
Takoma Wellness - out of about 2,600 registered citywide-retail pot
has begun to feel more routine to those on both sides of the
transaction. For clients, a 'blessing'

During a visit to Takoma Wellness in March, customers came and went -
and more than a dozen were willing to give their names and talk openly
about their marijuana use.

"Just being on the legal side of things makes for huge peace of mind,"
said Spencer Thompson, 26, a salesman at anH&Mstore in Friendship
Heights. He had been smoking marijuana for years and found that it
eased his nearly crippling social anxiety. When he got his first job
with medical coverage, he asked his doctor about the anti-anxiety drug
Xanax. She recommended medical cannabis instead. "She said if the pot
was working, it was probably better."

The customers filing in and out of the dispensary represented a
cross-section of the District. Some were young and fit and practiced
pot smokers. Others said they had never tried the drug, or had not
done so for years, before a health concern led them to sign up. Their
complaints ranged from phantom pain from an amputation to cluster
migraines to muscle spasms from a motorcycle accident.

Breast cancer survivor Anna Hall, 39, said a few drops of sativa oil
under her tongue is the only thing that has eased the nerve pain she
feels from Tamoxifin, a cancer drug she will be taking for another
nine years.

Jeremy Douglas, 39, a former deep-sea diver for the Navy, said the
herb helped him kick the opioid painkillers he had been popping since
he was blown out of a Humvee in an explosion in Bahrain in 2004.

Sydney Buffalow said two small hits of marijuana a day - sometimes
inhaled from a steam vaporizer, sometimes in oil-infused tea - ease
the pain of endometriosis. "I was so glad to tell my dealer I would no
longer be coming to see him," she said. "This place is a blessing."

Insurance companies will not cover pot, the Kahns said, making it an
out-of pocket expense. But low-income customers get a citymandated 20
percent discount. The health department charges $100 for the marijuana
card, or $25 for the poor.

The dispensary is housed in a small suite of freshly redecorated
offices in a tiny shopping center a few blocks from the Takoma Metro
station. The waiting room is a dentist-lobby haven of pastel walls,
subtle art and trim leather chairs. The bell on the alwayslocked front
door rings every few minutes and, like a speakeasy, Minar asks each
customer for their officialD.C. Department ofHealth marijuana card and
a second photo ID before he lets him or her in.

Traffic is brisk, thanks to an ongoing shortage of the cannabis
supplied by the District's three official growers. Dispensaries often
limit how much each participant can buy to a gram or so per visit, so
some customers come back every fewdays.

If anything deters recreational users from trying to access the
medical marijuana network, it may be this shortage, and the resulting
jump in dispensary prices. Two ounces of a strain called BerryO costs
$552 at Takoma Wellness. A similar quantity of premium pot is
available on the black market for as low as $350, according to several
local dealers interviewed recently who spoke on the condition of
anonymity to avoid legal scrutiny.

In the center's dispensary room, where cardholders are called by name,
Green works the register and talks with clients about the THC and CBD
levels of the various strains. Packets of rolling papers fill one
shelf, and glass pipes, another. But most of the space is devoted to
smoke-free methods of imbibing: Volcano Vaporizers; Magical Butter
machines that distill it to oil; a lone box of Duncan Hines brownie

"We advise people that anything is healthier than smoking," Stephanie

The Kahns view their bustling enterprise as part business and part
mission. Stephanie's father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in
the 1960s. He tried a range of treatments, including snake venom, but
found the most relief from marijuana. A huge honeymoon portrait of her
smiling parents hangs in the dispensary lobby, and Stephanie tells the
story to almost every newclient.

"This is very personal for us," she said.
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