City officials openly admit the current design of the medicinal marijuana program is for wealthy. They wrestle with the issue because that it was not the intent of the program.

“Until it is covered by insurance, medical marijuana is only for the privileged residents who can afford it.

When we even take a look at the program’s success thus far in D.C., it could very well be that the majority of patients who would qualify and benefit from the treatment can’t afford it,” said Councilmember Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 and chairperson of the Committee on Health. “Dispensaries are required to contribute two percent of their profits to help bear the cost of subsidizing medical marijuana for qualified patients.”

This reduces the cost about 20 percent.

Clients said the D.C. government is missing the point. “Most Black people on fixed incomes, especially people like me on disability, don’t have $300 to pay out for pain medicine. One of my cousins skips a lunch once a week just to give me enough money to buy one gram to make a joint,” said Olivia Johnson, one of 300 clients in the program.

Johnson worked feverishly through a crowd of people waiting for a bus at the Petworth Metro Station. She carefully identified potential clients by targeting individuals with canes, walkers or those who seemed to be in pain or discomfort. Her goal was to pass out literature regarding medicinal marijuana in the District.

Johnson handed out brochures for MMJ, Medical Marijuana Advocates Group, a referral service for individuals seeking medicinal marijuana treatment to relieve symptoms associated with a chronic or long lasting illness.

For over 15 years, Johnson, 54, has suffered from a degenerate spine and disc disorder. Doctors prescribed many medications that were narcotic based such as Percocet, Percodan and Oxycodone which are very potent and addictive. “I attempted to self-medicate by taking street drugs,” said Johnson. Now free from cocaine use for the last 19 years, Johnson said medicinal marijuana is what she needed. 

“I always had a fear that the prescription meds would trigger me back to my old habits,” she said.

Johnson read MMJ’s ad in a local newspaper and decided to give it a chance. That’s when she met Shawntay Hopkins, 41, founder of MMJ.

“For our referral service, business was extremely slow in the beginning because most D.C. residents had no knowledge of where to go for processing. So we decided to take to the streets,” Hopkins said about her Black-owned family business, explaining the process. Once MMJ is contacted, it generates a preliminary application and sets an appointment with a certified physician approved by the Department of Health (DOH). There is a $100 processing fee which includes the initial doctor’s visit and filing the application to DOH.

But for many low-income clients, the processing fee was a deterrent because of the federal guidelines prohibiting Medicaid, Medicare and insurance companies from paying any costs associated with marijuana still deemed an illegal substance. “The processing fee was a little out of my price range so I set up a payment plan because I didn’t have much money left from my SSI check,” Johnson remembered.

Hopkins said most Black clients who suffer greatly do not have the means to sufficiently pay for the services that they need.

“We’ve had clients to take six months to pay our application and referral fee of which $50 goes towards your first purchase if approved,” said Hopkins.

MMJ advises patients what credentials and medical records to bring or have sent to the physician for review.

Once the physician has determined that the individual is an eligible candidate, MMJ sends the documentation to DOH supervised by the physician to ensure all criteria has been met.

About two weeks later, DOH notifies the patient of its determination. The clients are given a list of medicinal marijuana dispensers to choose for products.

Currently, there are three approved cultivators that grow medicinal marijuana and three dispensers in operation that provide an array of products. District Growers, owned and operated by native Washingtonian, Cory Burnett, 44, provides products to Metropolitan Wellness, a dispensary located near Union Station. “We are the only Black-owned medicinal marijuana distributor on the east coast,” said Burnett.

Capital City Cares, owned and operated by another native Washingtonian, Scott Morgan, 34, cultivates and dispenses its own products at a lower rate than its competitors. On its website prices for certain types of medicinal marijuana start at $12 per gram which makes an ounce cost about $340.

Clients said other dispensers’ prices range from $500 to $670 an ounce. On the street, an ounce cost about $100 which some believe might deter low income patients from buying the District’s legal medicinal products.

“It’s a struggle.

You can tell the difference between medicinal marijuana which is pure and organic versus the street type. Medicinal marijuana is more potent,” said Johnson. “With the street type, you don’t know what insecticides have been sprayed on it or what chemicals or additives have been used to cure it.

Medicinal is much better.”


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO