The issue of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes has been on the minds of District residents since 1998 when they overwhelmingly voted for Initiative 59, a measure many believed would have been of particular benefit to the elderly. But Congress failed to give its nod of approval and it wasn’t until last month that the ban restricting its further discussion among local lawmakers was lifted.

The matter recently found its way before the city’s governing body, where At-large Councilman David Catania, with the support of nine of his colleagues, introduced a bill that residents claim has been long overdue.

“If it’s going to serve its purpose, it’s a good thing; and the Food and Drug Administration should have approved it for use a long time ago,” said 59-year-old Alphonso Brown, who suffers from glaucoma.  “I’m blind in one eye with cataracts and I’ve heard marijuana helps improve vision for people with glaucoma. It should be legalized as a prescription as long as people don’t abuse it.”

Catania was not immediately available for comment but Council Chairman Vincent Gray—who also backed the bill —said in a statement that he intends to work with “deliberate speed” for implementation.

In the process, Gray will converse with the heads of two committees convened to study the Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative Amendment Act, which seeks to make the drug available to any patient who obtains a prescription.  The legislation will then be forwarded to Congress for a 30-day review.

“During which I am confident lawmakers will follow the same hands-off policy that thankfully led them to loosen the ropes on this appropriation,” Gray said.  He added that since Initiative 59 becomes an act of the Council, the governing body would be free to amend the bill at any time.

As the Council proceeds, it faces several steps to getting the bill set into stone, with the most critical focusing on establishment of rules to regulate the manufacturing, possession, distribution and use of marijuana as a medicine.

Otherwise, the city would be following the lead of the state of New Jersey –which is already poised to sign a bill into law—in joining 13 other states that have already given a thumbs-up to medical marijuana. Like the District, three of the legalized states —Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont —are on the East Coast.

While District patients would be restricted from growing marijuana themselves, the Council’s plan calls for distribution at several clinics that would be located around the District,  but not in close proximity to schools and centers which cater to youth.

The American College of Physicians supports programs and funding for the in-depth scientific evaluation of the possible therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana.

A posting on the organization’s Web site claims that marijuana has been touted as a relief for pain, nausea and other symptoms and that in many parts of the world the drug appears to have been used therapeutically for centuries.  It further states that the drug, which produces fewer side effects, has a greater margin of safety than non-narcotic drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen which may be responsible for a few hundred deaths each year.

Resident Rick Johnson, 45, said it doesn’t surprise him that a lot of senior citizens who have found the use of marijuana beneficial in easing various conditions are already getting it on their own.

“I know of senior citizens that go down to the street corner every month and get it,” he said. “And they buy enough to hold them until they get their checks.”

Johnson said the city talked about legalizing marijuana back in the 1970s and said not passing it then was a mistake. “Ten years ago they were going to legalize it I don’t know exactly what deterred that, but it was a mistake…. That’s why we’ve got all this street-corner buying and selling going on today,” he said.

The Council is expected to vote on the measure sometime this summer.