Medical Marijuana in D.C.: The Council Gets it Right

February 21, 2010 – It’s been 10 years now, so some history is in order:

In 1998, voters in the District overwhelmingly approved Initiative 59 to allow seriously ill people, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or those suffering from AIDS-wasting syndrome, to use medical marijuana under their doctor’s supervision. But every year for a decade, Congress passed an amendment to the D.C. budget stopping the measure from taking effect. The hold on medical marijuana, of course, was just another in a long line of congressional interference with local affairs.

Congressional meddling was hardly the most formidable challenge faced by the AIDS activists who organized the Initiative 59 campaign. As the petition deadline approached, the initiative’s original sponsor, activist Steve Michael, was hospitalized and died from AIDS-related complications. Supporters rallied to continue the campaign in his memory, gathering nearly 20,000 signatures in less than four weeks. Then, when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics certified the initiative for the November ballot, Congress passed an amendment blocking the city from counting the votes. The ballots would be impounded for 11 months after the election until a federal judge ordered their release.

The result was unequivocal. Initiative 59 passed with 69 percent of the vote. It won in all eight wards and in every precinct. So, naturally, Congress stepped in again, this time with the amendment that kept Initiative 59 from taking effect. In truth, organizers were quietly relieved Congress didn’t completely overturn the initiative.

Congress’s medical marijuana prohibition was nothing new. The District’s domestic partnership law took nearly a decade to implement because of a similar “social rider.” Local funding for needle exchange programs and abortion services for low-income women were also blocked by congressional fiat. It would take a concerted, multiyear effort by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and local democracy activists to finally secure passage of a clean budget bill — a rare victory for D.C. voting rights advocates.

Which brings us to the current moment. With the ban lifted, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), along with council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), has introduced legislation to implement Initiative 59. It’s a sound proposal that tracks the design and intent of the original initiative by creating a tightly regulated system whereby patients with serious, chronic or debilitating medical conditions can have safe and affordable access to medical marijuana.

That’s good, because in recent years we’ve seen what a vague law and lack of regulation can do. Appropriately, the council members seek to head off the abuses that have emerged in some of the 14 states with medical marijuana laws. California’s law, for example, is so broadly worded that almost any use of marijuana could qualify as medical.

The council’s bill would limit the number and location of dispensaries and require tight monitoring of marijuana distribution. In this way, the proposal builds on the framework in the initiative’s original legislative text, which called for dispensaries operated as nonprofits subject to government licensing and regulation. AIDS activists included those provisions to ensure that only patients with serious medical conditions would be covered. In addition, nonprofits would allow low-income residents to have access to medical marijuana and prevent entrepreneurs from profiteering off sick patients. The council’s bill also includes a sliding-scale fee system to ensure that dispensaries provide access to medical marijuana regardless of ability to pay. The council correctly recognizes that tight controls protect patients as well as the community — and will prevent the kind of free-for-all that recently compelled Los Angeles to crack down on unregulated dispensaries.

Yes, the proposal may be too restrictive for some, but Initiative 59 was never about promoting casual or recreational use of marijuana. And the council’s cautious approach is appropriate for another reason: Under the Constitution, Congress retains the authority to overturn D.C. legislation at any time. It would be a grave mistake to unnecessarily provoke further congressional interference by creating a system vulnerable to abuses. The council’s plan represents the best chance to implement medical marijuana and to protect those patients whose quality of life may depend upon this medication of last resort.

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