The voters of Washington, D.C. first approved medical cannabis in 1998 with the passage of Initiative 59 (I-59), which received 69% of the vote and earned majority support in every voting precinct in the District. However, the law was blocked by Congressional action, because unlike States, Congress has constitutional authority over the laws of the District of Columbia. Congress blocked I-59 from being adopted into law through a budget rider that became known as the Barr Act, after Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) who authored the prohibition imposed on the District. This legislation was attached by Congress to the District’s budget every year until December 2009.
Although the District was free to implement I-59, the District’s election laws do no make voter initiatives binding, and therefore D.C. Council is free to amend initiatives before passing them into law. In January 2010, the D.C. Council introduced B18-0622: Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 2010 as a replacement for the text in I-59. When I-59 was passed in 1998, California was the only state in the U.S. that had previously passed a medical law cannabis law that had gone into effect. The purpose of replacing I-59 with B18-0622 was to reflect the decade-plus of medical cannabis laws, which by 2010 had grown to 13 states from Hawaii to Maine.
The final version of B18-0622 is substantially different than I-59, the medical cannabis initiative approved by District voters in 1998 that was blocked by Congress from being implemented. The final version of B18-0622 is much more specific and attempts to create a “closed system” of medical cannabis in which the medicine is tracked from cultivation to sales with the intent of preventing abuse of the system. Perhaps the most notable difference between I-59 and B18-0622 is that the initiative allowed patients and caregivers to cultivate their own medicine, while the law passed by the D.C. Council currently only permits cultivation by registered cultivation centers to supply medical cannabis dispensaries, and those centers are restricted to growing no more than 95 plants. One notable feature of I-59 that remained in B18-0622 is that low income patients are entitled to purchase medicine at a reduced rate (aka “sliding scale”).
After unanimous approval by the Council of the District of Columbia, and a waiting period in which neither Congress nor the Senate acted to block the law, on July 27, 2010, the Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 2010 became effective. The program outlined provides an infrastructure for a program that is to be implemented by the Mayor of the District of Columbia. The program is extremely restrictive, and by all accounts, the rules promulgated by the Mayor will not seek to expand any rights. Due to the lack of patient cultivation provisions, patients will continue to suffer during the laborious process of implementation, and will not have safe access until the first dispensary opens its doors.
To become registered, a patient must receive a recommendation from physician who is licensed to practice medicine in the District. Patients and caregivers in D.C. must register to a specific dispensary and may only purchase medical cannabis products (include paraphernalia) from that dispensary. Those who wish to switch dispensary membership may do so with 14 days notice by submitting paperwork and a fee to the D.C. Department of Health (DOH). Patients whose income is less than 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced fees and medicine prices.
In addition to B18-0622, the District’s medical cannabis program is also governed by title 22, subtitle C of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations (DCMR). At 118 pages, these are the longest regulations of any of the jurisdiction that has authorized the use of medical cannabis for patients. The law and rules allow registered patients and caregivers to possess up two (2) ounces of dried medical cannabis or its equivalent in other forms (ie. edibles, tinctures, topicals, etc.). Patients and caregivers may obtain no more than two (2) ounces of cannabis in a 30-day period. More rules are to follow, as currently there are draft regulations awaiting final approval on the District’s sliding scale discount program for patients with financial hardship. These draft rules will likely become effective by the end of 2013.