Medical Marijuana Programa Expands in D.C.

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Tolerance for medical marijuana in the nation’s capital moved forward, despite regional opposition. After a unanimous vote by the 13 member Washington, D.C. City Council to expand medical use earlier in the summer, Mayor Gray signed the “Medical Marijuana Expansion Emergency Amendment Act of 2014” into law on July 29.

The measure, which allows eligible D.C. physicians to prescribe medical marijuana for any condition they think will respond, creates one of the most comprehensive medical access programs in the country. The current eligible patient pool is now only 400 people. This too is expected to expand dramatically. The law also increases the number of plants eligible dispensaries are allowed to grow from 95 to 500 plants.

The law took effect immediately. That said, it is only a stopgap measure and will automatically expire at the end of October unless the Council takes direct action to extend the program, which would involve getting Congressional approval.

While only temporary, this is a major victory for reform advocates in the city. The battle for medical access in the District has been a long fought one with reform continually blocked by Congress over the last decade.
“The Council and Mayor Gray should be commended for acting when Congress would not and helping potentially thousands of D.C. residents find relief,” said Morgan Fox, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project. “This expansion is exactly what the medical marijuana program needs in order to protect more patients from arrest and allow the dispensaries to better serve their needs.”

Defining eligible conditions is a trend in many states particularly where cannabis reform is attempted by legislative wrangling rather than voter decision at the ballot box. Until last week, legal medical conditions that qualified under D.C.’s program included glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, MS and conditions that create unremitting muscle spasms.

After D.C. legalized medical marijuana in 1998, developments required for the initiation of a dispensary system were continually stalled because of national political will until last year. The dispensary program had been under design for two years before being initiated in 2013.

The lack of political muscle, if not will, to make medical cannabis legal in D.C., with no federal voting representation in Congress, has long been an issue in the District. D.C. has no “Home Rule,” and its yearly budgets fall under the purview and approval of a federal Congressional lawmakers.

It is for this reason that the development here has much broader implications than would otherwise be created by a small, still essentially pilot level program run under the ever-present and looming shadow of federal lawmakers who also have power to kill reform in the District.

As of last month with New York becoming the 23rd state where medical cannabis is legal, more than half of Congressmen still have no constituent pressure to change their public views if not votes on reform issues. The fact that the D.C. City Council and Mayor have now acted, however, seems to indicate they too believe the public debate nationally has shifted dramatically.

The battle to extend the District’s new medical eligibility rules will now come right before the November vote in three states to affect much broader reform. If all three states where this issue is on the ballot box vote successfully to pass these measures, this year will become the first year when the majority of states have formally legalized at least medical use.

That alone should shift the voting tendencies of those in Congress who have proved to date that they are driven more by public opinion on this issue than any other influence. And that in turn spells longevity for the District’s new expanded medical access initiative.

–Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet

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