WASHINGTON — The Popeyes on 8th Street Southeast sells the typical fare of fried chicken and biscuits, but the space upstairs from the fast food restaurant will soon sell something a little more unusual and a lot more green.
A mere two miles from the U.S. Department of Justice, Metropolitan Wellness Center, one of three medical marijuana dispensaries preparing to open in the district within the next few months, will sell dried cannabis, edibles and paraphernalia to qualifying individuals.
Proponents say medical marijuana can help patients manage pain and deal with other symptoms of diseases such as cancer. But marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
"It's hilarious, isn't it?” said Vanessa West, Metropolitan Wellness Center’s general manager. “It's funny, the public has it in their heads that people are going to be up here smoking and then going downstairs to eat chicken."
Medical marijuana was approved in the district in 1998, though Congress, which controls the city’s budget, blocked implementation until recently.
Despite pot’s illegal status federally, 19 states, most recently Maryland, have passed legislation allowing the distribution of medical marijuana. Voters in both Colorado and Washington state passed referendums in November allowing the recreational use of pot.
Maryland’s law, which Gov. Martin O’Malley signed Thursday, will allow academic medical centers, designated by a commission within the state’s Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, to distribute marijuana to patients who have received a recommendation from their physician.
The law will take effect Oct. 1, although the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, has estimated it will take a couple of years before treatment will become available.
Marijuana has had its place on the federal government’s Schedule 1 listing of illegal substances without a known medical use and a high potential for abuse since 1970 as part of the Controlled Substances Act.
“The fact that the District of Columbia can pass it legally, and the District of Columbia is in the land of the federal government … is a contradiction and it speaks to the fact that federal law needs to sort of get on board with what more states are saying,” West said.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy referred calls for comment to the Department of Justice. Officials at the Department of Justice could not be reached for comment.
For the first time in more than four decades, a majority of Americans are for the legalization of marijuana. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans are for legalizing pot, a jump up from 32 percent in 2002 and 17 percent in 1991.
“I think it shows that this is not an issue for them anymore,” said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. “Over the last two years since this program has been implemented…we haven’t seen a single member of Congress object to it. We’ve seen several members of Congress introduce measures to tax marijuana. This ship has sailed.”
The dispensary upstairs from the Popeyes is mostly empty now as it waits for the Department of Health to complete the final stages of certification. Some empty jars in a display case sit idly by the window next to a couple of scales bearing Department of Health certification stickers, and that’s about it.
But upon opening, those jars will be filled with pot nuggets separated by strains, and the adjacent wall will have shelves filled with bongs, vaporizers and rolling papers.
“We’ll be like a little head shop,” said West, referring to retail outfits known to specialize in marijuana paraphernalia.
Patients will be let past the waiting room depending on how many specialists are on duty. If there is only one specialist available, patients will be let in one at a time.
Selecting a strain is not simple. Different strains have different effects depending on a patient’s medical history and current prescriptions, West said. The job of the specialist is to tailor a strain based on a patient’s medical needs.
For instance, a specialist would not recommend a pot strain that would speed up a patient’s heart rate if they are taking medication that already has that side effect. If a patient is seeking medical marijuana to relieve their insomnia, they would shy away from a strain known to be energy inducing.
“If they’re nauseous or depressed or don’t have an appetite, if they’re vomiting constantly, these are things we want to sort of pull out of them so that we can make the best recommendation possible so that when they go home they have the best experience,” West said.
But to even get upstairs, the district's Department of Health requires hopeful residents to jump through a number of hoops.
To start, only residents that have HIV, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma or multiple sclerosis are eligible. Other illnesses will quality with the Department of Health on a case-by-case basis.
In order for residents to enter the program, their physician must file a recommendation with the Department of Health, citing one of the qualifying diseases as the basis for their need.
Once approved, residents must pay a $100 registration fee to receive a photo identification card they can use to access their designated dispensary. Residents are only allowed to visit one dispensary to ensure they do not purchase more than 2 ounces, the maximum amount allowed by the Department of Health, per month.
After all that, residents can make the trip to 409 8th St. SE, climb the long staircase past the cell phone repair shop and use their ID to gain entrance to the dispensary.
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