Pot comes to Capitol Hill as U.S. marijuana movement blooms

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 5, 2013 

— As she prepares to open the Metropolitan Wellness Center above a Popeyes chicken restaurant a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, general manager Vanessa West isn’t worried that her medical marijuana shop will get raided.

West knows she’ll be selling a drug that’s illegal under federal law, even though the District of Columbia city council has approved sales for medical use, but she expects the city to have a tightly run system.

“I was explaining it to a toddler a few weeks ago. It’s like if you’re in grade school and they say it’s OK to chew gum inside the classroom but it’s not in the hallway,” West said. “It just makes no sense.”

Operating in the shadow of Congress, the center – expected to open later this month – will mark one of the boldest moves yet for the nation’s marijuana movement, which is in full bloom this spring. It will be one of three that are expected to be operating soon in the district.

In Illinois, legislators just passed a law legalizing medical marijuana, though it has yet to be signed by the governor. In New Hampshire, the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved medical marijuana bills, sending the issue to a conference committee. In Vermont, lawmakers voted to decriminalize pot, and the governor plans to sign the measure Thursday. In Colorado, the governor made history last week by signing bills to make his state the first to create a system to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states, along with the District of Columbia. Two – Colorado and Washington state – have signed off on plans to allow recreational sales. Critics fear that more will follow.

“Medical marijuana has been a Trojan horse, really, for decriminalization and legalization. It’s the slippery slope toward legalization,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman who’s the chairman of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a national group that opposes legalization.

Kennedy said he regretted ever supporting medical marijuana and that he feared it would lead to more drug abuse among children.

“More kids smoke marijuana than smoke tobacco,” he said. “And the perception is, ‘Well, it’s medical, it must be fine.’ . . . What you end up doing is sending a very dangerous message.”

Opponents of medical marijuana hope to ramp up the anti-legalization message, saying they need to do a better job of reaching state legislators.

“It’s a reflection of the one-sidedness that they’re hearing on this,” said Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor and the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, who teamed up with Kennedy to create Project SAM.

Sabet said the dispensary on Capitol Hill was making itself a target for legal action. But he predicted that the Obama administration will take a wait-and-see attitude to assess whether the dispensary fizzles out or begins growing.

“If they get more brazen, I can’t imagine there won’t be any action against them,” Sabet said.

Stuart Taylor, who studied the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Democratic-leaning research center in Washington, said allowing the dispensary would be “totally inconsistent with federal law.”

“It seems as though the administration wants to pretend nothing’s happening, and one way to pretend nothing’s happening is to have marijuana being sold right under their noses in the middle of D.C. and not do anything about it,” he said.

Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-legalization group in Washington, said allowing the center to operate so close to the Capitol “is with some irony.” But he said the dispensary probably would be fine as long as it complied with conditions set by the District of Columbia’s Health Department.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

West, who once worked at a San Diego dispensary, said she didn’t understand the fuss.

“It’s just odd to me, you know. I feel like it’s not an issue,” she said. She said that anyone who’d lived in California or Colorado knew that marijuana was “just not a big deal.”

“So we’re a little bit behind the times, which is ironic, because D.C. passed this law back in 1998,” she said.

While D.C. residents did pass a medical marijuana initiative nearly 15 years ago, Congress intervened, delaying its start date until 2010.

With only three dispensaries set to open in the District of Columbia, West said the city would run a tightly controlled system, unlike California, where looser rules have resulted in hundreds of raids. She said there was another important distinction: Only D.C. residents who have recommendations from currently licensed doctors may buy marijuana, while California allows doctors who no longer are practicing to make recommendations, which she said made the system much harder to control.

The district’s other two dispensaries will be in the Takoma neighborhood adjacent to Takoma Park, Md., and on North Capitol Street, another location not far from the U.S. Capitol.

Noting his administration’s aggressive stance against medical marijuana in California, West called President Barack Obama “the worst marijuana president in the history of this country.” But she said Obama now had more important things to do than deal with marijuana issues.

“In every state where it’s legal medically and the program is done right, the feds don’t intervene,” she said.

West said she wouldn’t know exactly when the center would open until she got the green light from the city, once all her paperwork was in order.

The walls have fresh gray paint on them. The display jars are lined up in a glass case, but they’re still empty as she awaits the first delivery of cannabis from the city’s licensed cultivators.

She’s eager for her first customers.

“We need to teach them how to pick the best strain and how to pick the best way to ingest it,” she said. “Do you want to smoke it? Do you want to eat it? Are you going to roll a joint? Art you going to vaporize it? Are you going to put on your skin?”

The center will sell many different strains of marijuana, along with edibles, concentrates, dried cannabis and pot-laced drinks. Customers will be able to find paraphernalia, too.

“Anything that you see at a head shop, we can sell,” West said.

Email: rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HotakainenRob

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