Medical Marijuana

The DC Council passed emergency legislation on July 14 to advance the medical marijuana program. The bills provide a patient-centric medical marijuana use program, a sliding scale for the purchase marijuana, and an increase in the number of plants a grower can cultivate to meet patient demands.

Passage of B20-678, “Medical Marijuana Plant Cultivation Amendment Act of 2014” and B20-766, “Medical Marijuana Expansion Amendment of 2014” paved the way for medical marijuana cultivation centers to increase the number of plants from 95 to 500. These changes allow patients and their physicians to determine if using medical marijuana is more beneficial than conventional medications for treatment. Also included are provisions for a payment sliding scale for patients with income less than or equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. “This debate regarding the state of the District’s medical marijuana program began last Fall. Since then we’ve worked with patients, advocates, dispensaries, cultivators, and the Department of Health continuously to improve patient access. This legislation is another step in the right direction. I was pleased to support it and I’m glad my colleagues did as well,” said At Large Councilmember David Grosso.

Dr. Joxel Garcia, director of the D.C. Department of Health, said, “The department supports legislation that permits the expansion of the qualifying medical conditions to mean any condition for which use of the medical marijuana may be beneficial, as determined by the patient and their physician.”

Olivia Johnson, a medical marijuana user, moved to the District in 1983 from California, a state with a medical marijuana program for 17 years. She suffers from a degenerative spine and disc disorder. “I think it’s wonderful. I knew because it was a new program, the District government seemed terrified to implement the program with full force. I thought it would take longer to move this along. I am ecstatic the changes came so quickly.”

Sarah Kirsten Farthing suffers with Stage 4 endometriosis. “I am incredibly relieved. I do not believe that the government should be involved in improving individual conditions,” said Farthing. “Before, the process left many citizens, like myself, without legal access to a drug that is safer, more effective, and has fewer side effects than the drugs frequently given to patients with serious health needs.”

Not all physicians are supportive of the expansion. “As a pediatrician who specializes in caring for teenagers, I am concerned that medical marijuana is erroneously sending the signal to youth that not only is marijuana not harmful, it’s actually beneficial,” said Krishna Upadhya, MD. “There is evidence that expansion of medical marijuana programs does cause harm. I am opposed to legislators deciding that something is a medicine. There is no assurance of uniformity, purity, or concentration of the active ingredients as is required for prescription drugs.”

The issue of growing more plants was not readily accepted by Department of Health but passed the Council. “Currently, we cannot say there is a demonstrated need to expand the plant limit to 500, or if the demand for medical marijuana will support the increased supply. Although we know that the program will continue to grow,” testified Garcia at a Council hearing in June.

Under its current design, the District has 412 patients registered in the program and 114 physicians that have requested access to recommend medical marijuana. Patients are also able to submit applications online. Supporters expect the number of patients to increase now that barriers have been lifted.

“There was no sound reason to continue capping the number of plants licensed cultivators may possess at any given time. The federal government has never targeted relatively large-scale producers who operate in compliance with a state regulatory scheme in any of the states where they have been allowed,” said Robert J. Capecchi, deputy director of state policies, Marijuana Policy Project.

A medical marijuana initiative, mirroring the California statute, was passed by 69 percent of the District’s voters in 1998. At that time California was the only state in the nation to have a program. Congress blocked any action to implement the program until 2009. Now 22 states have medical marijuana programs, and Colorado and Washington have full legalization. In August, the Justice Department issued a statement to allow states with medical marijuana laws to operate programs. “In short, the way was clear for DC to move ahead with improvements to its program. The ultimate solution here is to treat medical marijuana the same way we treat medical alcohol and medical tobacco because it has far more uses and is much safer,” said Richard F. Kennedy, PhD.

Corey Barnette, owner and operator of District Growers Cultivation Center, applauded the positive directional changes. However, he mentioned other hurdles that needed to be addressed. “It must begin to allow existing ownership groups to finance expansion and operation, like any other business in the District. Lessen the burden of a lack of access to bank financing and merchant services. Prevent supply interruption and continue to supply growing demand. Support reduction in pricing,” said Barnette, owner of the only Black-owned cultivation center in this region.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO