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More than a year after the District of Columbia legalized medical marijuana, the city is moving ahead on granting licenses to grow or dispense cannabis. But applicants have to agree that because it’s still a federal crime, they will bear all the risk. Kojo updates the progress toward marijuana dispensaries in D.C.
- Martin Austermuhle Associate Editor, DCist.com
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMore than a year after the District of Columbia voted to legalize medical marijuana, the process is moving forward again. The city has selected 50 people who can now apply to grow marijuana, and is finalizing the list of people who can apply to sell it, but the enterprise is still fraught with legal hurdles. Even though D.C. has given medical marijuana the green light, growing, selling, or possessing pot is a federal offense, meaning people who apply for licenses to grow or sell it here do so at their own risk.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Martin Austermuhle. He is associate editor with DCist.com. Martin, good to see you again.
MR. MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me on.
NNAMDID.C., the District of Columbia, is going to issue 15 licenses to grow medical marijuana and five licenses to sell it. What's the process to apply for one of those licenses?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, the first process -- the first step of the process was a couple months ago when the District actually requested letters of intent from potential applicants. So people who want to apply for licenses for either cultivation centers or dispensaries sent in letters of intent saying we're interested. The city went through those and chose what we now have a list of about 50 people who are actually allowed to apply for the licenses themselves.
AUSTERMUHLEThe application process for cultivation centers started about two weeks ago and ends in about two weeks. It's about a month long, and then it's gonna be followed by the application process for dispensaries. And then there's a whole long process by which a five-person committee appointed by the mayor basically goes through all these applications and chooses them based on a very specific set of conditions, everything from the security plan that the applicants are proposing to what the local ANCs, where those dispensaries or cultivation centers would be located have to say.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd then in theory, by the end of the year, early next year, they'll have said these are the 15 people that are getting licenses, the 15 groups, and by mid next year, again, in theory, medical marijuana should be available to qualifying patients.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about this, call us at 800-433-8850. The licensing process for the growing or dispensation of medical marijuana in the District of Columbia. 800-433-8850, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. What makes someone a strong contender to apply for a license?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, in the hundred-plus pages worth of rules that the District rolled out for the program, they lay out all sorts of conditions, and like I mentioned, one big thing is security. They say listen, you have to have a security plan to make sure that if you have a cultivation center someone's not gonna just kick down the door in the middle of the night, walk away with the medical marijuana, and we're not gonna know who that is.
AUSTERMUHLESo -- and all these different factors by which they're gonna judge applicants are scored. So I think the final score is 200-250 points and the applicant can actually get -- 50 points I think are dedicated to ANC. So if a local ANC says we've talked to this applicant, they really sound like they respect the community, they understand the process, and they know what they're doing, we're fine with it, then that applicant will get the full 50 points and they've got a big advantage on the competition.
AUSTERMUHLEIf someone walks in with a good security plan, same thing, but ultimately, it's whoever can show that they've read the rules, understand all the rules, and have talked to the community about their plans are most likely to get these licenses.
NNAMDIWhat about somebody who says, look, I've been in the business in California for a long time, I know how to do it. Does that make you a strong contender, or does the fact that this person may be a newly arrived resident of the District of Columbia factor in also?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, that's a tough call. There's not really -- there are some requirements based on how the medical marijuana has to be grown and things like that, but it's not really something that they're gonna judge an applicant on. Obviously I think if you're gonna be sinking the amount of money that people are gonna be sinking into these dispensaries and cultivation centers, you better know what you're doing, because we're talking $5,000 to $10,000 application fees, and then we're talking $5,000 to $10,000 in registration fees depending on whether it's a dispensary or cultivation center.
AUSTERMUHLEBut the numbers have gone up to $500,000 just in upfront costs to start one of these. So you have to know what you're doing, or you really should have someone your staff who knows what they're doing if you're going to jump into this game.
NNAMDIAnd let's be clear here. We don't -- when we say know what you're doing, we don't think Cheech and Chong need apply.
NNAMDIPeople who have a lot of experience at using the product need not apply, especially if they have misdemeanors or criminal convictions as a result.
AUSTERMUHLEExactly. Pretty much anybody with a criminal conviction, if it's a drug-related misdemeanor or it's a felony of any sort, and they've been convicted, they're pretty much disqualified at that point on. Yeah. I think growing marijuana, as much as -- the whole concept sounds a little goofy and, you know, you figure just about any -- to be undiplomatic about it, any pothead, you know, could come along and apply for a license, it's not that easy.
AUSTERMUHLEAgain, because ultimately they have to make -- try to make ends meet, they're limited in how much marijuana they can grow. It's only 95 plants a cultivation center. So, you know, profit margin are gonna be pretty tight I think. It's not like they're gonna walk into this, make millions of dollars just by throwing a couple seeds on the ground and hoping something sprouts out.
NNAMDIIn other words, experience with consumption of the product doesn't count. The complicating factor in this process is that while the city has legalized medical marijuana, it's still a federal crime to grow, distribute, or possess marijuana. How is the city handling that dichotomy in screening applicants?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, all 16 states, and the District who have medical marijuana programs are facing the same tension between what the federal government says, which is medical marijuana is illegal. Marijuana period is illegal whether you've said it's usable for medical reasons or not. So different states have responded differently to the federal government's kind of renewed threats about medical marijuana.
AUSTERMUHLESome have backed away from programs that they have or have promised to have. The District has tried to -- has walked a very fine line. They've moved forward with the program very slowly, very deliberately. They've put together very restrictive rules and they're forcing everybody who applies to the program to sign a waiver which pretty much says, listen, if you get in this -- if you get into cultivation, if you get into dispensing and something happens, if the feds kick down your door, it's on you.
AUSTERMUHLEWhat you lose is your fault and not ours. You can't sue us for it. That's your loss. And also, you're signing off on this waiver that says that you recognize that growing and dispensing marijuana is a violation of federal law.
NNAMDIWould you like a license to either grow or dispense marijuana in the District of Columbia? 800-433-8850. Do you approve of it? 800-433-8850. Our guest is Martin Austermuhle. He is associate editor of DCist.com. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to email@example.com. One of the complications here it seems to me, if not necessarily a complication, one of the issues here is that this is not only the District of Columbia, it's the seat of federal government.
NNAMDIThis is where the -- this is the city in which the attorney general of the United States resides...
NNAMDI...and in which the largest U.S. attorney's office in the attorney general's office is in this District...
NNAMDI...the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia. Would that complicate matters for potential growers and dispensers?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, it sounds like it would, but the one thing is that recently the Department of Justice sent out a memo to all U.S. attorneys saying, look, at the end of the day, marijuana is illegal whether these states have said patients can use it for medical reasons. So if you find someone that's growing it on a commercial scale, you can go after them. There's nothing in federal law that says that they can do this.
AUSTERMUHLENow, ultimately each attorney has a little bit of, you know, leeway and a little flexibility in how they interpret that, and I think our own attorney for the District hasn't said anything about the District's medical marijuana program, and the assumption is that as long as it proceeds the way it's going, which is a very limited small-scale program, he won't step in and do anything against it.
AUSTERMUHLENow, the assumption is, is that if we went the direction of California, which kind of opened the flood gates and suddenly they had commercial-level cultivation centers and very lax standards in terms of who could get the stuff, I think that's when the federal government would get a little more intrusive in terms of the District.
NNAMDITell us some of the names of the people. Let's name names on the list of people who will now be allowed to apply to cultivate marijuana. Any big surprises? I wouldn't expect to see the name (word?) there any place.
AUSTERMUHLENo. One name actually that the Post caught, and I give them credit for this one, was Montel Williams. Montel Williams the former talk show host who is, and has for a long time, been a proponent of medical marijuana. And he is apparently involved in a group that has had -- or has dispensaries. I think it's out in California, and they've decided that they want to bring that to the District. They've hired, of all people to be their attorney, Fred Cook, who Fred Cook is a well-known attorney in local circles.
NNAMDIOh, that name sounds familiar, yes.
AUSTERMUHLERight. So, you know, they -- they've -- right there it's a pretty intelligent set. They didn't just hire a guy who's a good lawyer, they hired a guy who has good friends on the council, so smart move. Montgomery Blair Sibley is one of my favorite characters, mostly because he was the attorney for the D.C. madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey a couple years back, made a bit of a name for himself, and then I don't know that he practices law anymore. I don't think so.
NNAMDIWhat's his name again, Montgomery Blair Sibley?
NNAMDIYes, I remember him.
AUSTERMUHLESo now he's jumped into the game as -- both as someone who wants to open a cultivation center, and something of a consultant. He's kind of opened himself up as the kind of go-to guy, the legal, you know, kind of -- the -- just, you know, using his legal skills to say I can solve your problems. If you're trying to get into the medical marijuana game in the District, I can help you figure out how to get that done.
NNAMDIYou mentioned one of the steps in the application process is to make your case to the local advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area in which you hope to grow or dispense marijuana. How hard a sell is that going to be?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, I would assume a really hard sell, because you figure ANCs have enough trouble with bars reupping on their liquor licenses and things like that. But there was one Ward 5 ANC where Mr. Sibley had been eyeing a potential spot for a cultivation center. It was along New York Avenue northeast on the way out of the District. So I got in touch with the local ANC commissioner, and I asked her, I was like, what do you think, you know, has he been in touch, and he said, yes, absolutely, he's been in touch.
AUSTERMUHLEHe's explained, and we're keeping an open mind. And she seemed relatively open to the prospect of this happening. She also said, listen, we live in a part of the city where we deal with drugs on a daily basis, but we deal with them on the level of a street dealer. Now, that's obviously a problem. A guy who's selling it to a very limited clientele, who have qualifying medical conditions and have to have security staffing plans and things like that, I think there's a difference.
AUSTERMUHLEBut of course, I mean, let's say, you know, up here by your guys' studio in Tenleytown, if someone decided, hey, listen, this is a great place for a cultivation center, I've got this awesome spot on Wisconsin Avenue. I'd like to propose it, you know, a local ANC could say we don't want our kids walking by that on a daily basis.
NNAMDINot only can a local ANC say that, but the law says that dispensaries, cultivation centers, and dispensaries have to be a certain distance from libraries, from schools, from playgrounds, and much more, which is, I guess, one of the reasons why Ward 5 is a popular location, because -- or popular proposed location...
NNAMDI...for some people, because there you can find the space to be able to do that without being in close proximity to any of the above-mentioned institutions.
AUSTERMUHLEExactly. They say 300 feet from any school, recreation center, library, church, that type of thing. It used to be 1000 feet, but then, you know, advocates for the program said 1000 feet is prohibitive. I mean, honestly, you'd be limiting us to maybe two spots in the entire city. So 300 feet was kind of agreed upon as a bit of a compromise. It's opened up the city a little bit more, but yeah, the majority of it is in Ward 5, which has a lot of sections of just industrial warehouse spaces that can be used.
NNAMDIWhat are the biggest concerns locally about medical marijuana cultivation centers and dispensaries?
AUSTERMUHLEThe biggest concerns?
AUSTERMUHLEYeah. I would imagine so. I mean, as long as I've been focusing -- following the story, and it's been about two years that I've been looking into it, I've never really heard anybody outline any, you know, real concerns that they have with the program itself of how it's going to be carried out. There's a lot of complaints about the federal government and federal intrusion, and also that the District's program is too restrictive, and that it's basically gonna make it impossible for anybody to make any sort of money and sustain themselves, but in terms of people saying, oh, you know, God forbid there's gonna be someone dispensing medical marijuana, I mean, I think everybody -- most people recognize that it's not -- as it is, people can get marijuana if they choose to.
AUSTERMUHLEIt's available on the black market. It's available illegally so that you're offering a legal alternative for people -- a very small group of people with very -- a distinct set of medical conditions. I mean, I don't -- I haven't heard any particularly good complaints about that.
NNAMDIHere is Gordon in Shepherdstown, W. Va. Gordon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GORDONWell, thank you. Two parts. One part is I live out in the sticks and I don't -- you're using this ANC phrase, I don't know what that means.
NNAMDIIt's an Advisory Neighborhood Commission. It's the neighborhood elected official in the District of Columbia.
GORDONOh, okay. Thank you. And the other, do you foresee a state's rights issue coming out of this fight between what a state says, you know, allows, and what the federal government is allowing. Obviously D.C. is a special case here.
AUSTERMUHLEMm-hmm. Well, a couple states that have medical marijuana programs have actually gone that legal route. I know that the government of Arizona has filed a lawsuit basically saying listen, someone's got to clarify where the federal government's loss stops, and where state's rights start, and kind of like what's the balance between what the state wants and what the federal government wants.
AUSTERMUHLEThe District, again, like you mentioned, is an interesting circumstance. This guy Mr. Sibley who started himself -- who wants to become a cultivator, filed a lawsuit in District court, basically -- well, it was a two-part lawsuit. One, he wants to stop the District from forcing him to sign this waiver that basically makes him admit that he's breaking federal law. Second, he's saying because of the District's interesting status, it's a little odd that Congress gave the go ahead on our medical marijuana program.
AUSTERMUHLEThey passively approved the legislation that the D.C. Council passed, but now Congress is basically -- Congress also says that Marijuana is illegal. So how is it that Congress can say one thing, marijuana is illegal, but then at the same time say but the District can allow people to sell it for medical reasons.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Gordon, thank you very much for your call. Martin Austermuhle, thank you so much for joining us.
AUSTERMUHLEAbsolutely, thank you.
NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle is associate editor of DCist.com. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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