It’s been 13 years since D.C. voted to approve the use of medical marijuana, passing the initiative with a 69 percent majority. Congress sat on the ballot measure for a decade, and the District took another couple years to create regulations that would govern how all worked. By then, it was entirely possible District residents might not even have realized the vote had passed.
For residents of Ward 5, though, medical marijuana has suddenly become very difficult to ignore. In October, prospective cultivation center operators—the folks who would grow the stuff, but not supply it to retail customers—submitted bids to run the ten centers permitted under D.C.’s new regulations. Each bid came with a signed lease on a building; 24 of the 28 applications are clustered in the Northeast neighborhoods of Brentwood, Ivy City, Trinidad, and Langdon.
People who live in those neighborhoods are, predictably, saying their blocks are being used as a “dumping ground.”
“Like the trash transfer stations and the strip clubs, they put them all in Ward 5, and all of them in 5B, and with the traffic and the pollution and everything that that brings,” said resident Nathan Brown at a recent Woodridge Citizens Association meeting, referring to the specific Advisory Neighborhood Commission where most of the addresses fall. He’s collecting signatures against the pot businesses. “To me, a marijuana facility is like having another strip club. It’s like having a bordello in your neighborhood. I put all of them on the same level.”
As the process has been set up, neighbors like Brown do have some power; this is D.C., after all. In deciding who’ll get to operate where, the Department of Health will rate each applicant on a 270-point scale, 50 points of which will be up to the local ANC.
The opposition is unsurprising given the scars left by the drug war. As an attendee of the Woodridge meeting pointed out, something smells funny about allowing entrepreneurs (many of them white) to legally grow pot in areas where residents (many of them black) have long been arrested on drug charges. That’s on top of more prosaic concerns about undesirable neighbors, imperiled property values, and anything that might attract criminals.
But if the criticism is understandable, it’s still off base. Medical-pot cultivation centers won’t resemble those imagined dens of sin. On the contrary, they’re the perfect use for Ward 5’s squat brick warehouses. They’ll likely make the neighborhood safer, wealthier, and better educated—even more so than standard warehouse uses like storage and repair.
The trick for would-be pot cultivators, if they want to get past objections from their future neighbors, might be to convince the community they’re not in the drug game at all. They’re using sophisticated methods to manufacture medicine that brings with it elevated levels of government oversight. That’s really not scary at all.
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Why do all the prospective cultivationcenters want to be in Ward 5, anyway?
There isn’t much of a choice. Since there’s no zoning category for “agriculture,” the city restricted cultivation centers to areas zoned for light manufacturing, less than 5 percent of the District’s land. Almost all of that is located along the rail lines in Northeast; there’s more along the Anacostia Freeway, where two cultivation centers have applied. (Dispensaries, which will sell to residents who have a prescription, can set up anywhere pharmacies are allowed. Potential locations so far include H Street, 7th Street in Shaw, Takoma, and North Capitol Street.)
Operators also had to find buildings between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet with sufficient power connections and a landlord willing to rent to them, even in the face of increasing federal prosecution of state-sanctioned marijuana programs.
The chosen spots are plain brick buildings that you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for them. One’s at the dead end of 24th Street NE. Another’s right up against the rail yards, behind Fort Myer Construction’s concrete depot. There’s one near the bend of quiet Channing Street, and another on Evarts before it turns into 26th Street. Two are neighbors of the steak-and-strippers joint Stadium Club; three sit within a block of the Love nightclub in Ivy City. Finally, a couple fall on the more heavily-trafficked corridors of New York Avenue and Mt. Olivet Road. The addresses all lie in areas with high vacancy levels, low rents, and little chance of being redeveloped in the near future. Marijuana cultivation centers would make use of buildings without many prospects in a city that never had much manufacturing anyway.
Many people in Ward 5 have a more global beef with the use of marijuana, suspecting that dispensary patients just want to get high and that cultivators are just glorified drug dealers. But their concerns about neighborhood-specific impacts boil down to three objections.
Objection number one: The existence of cultivation centers will destroy property values. “You can’t even sell your house!” protested someone at the Woodridge meeting.
There aren’t any formal studies of what happens to property values with a cultivation center nearby, mostly because the District’s model of separating cultivation from distribution isn’t widely practiced in other medical-marijuana jurisdictions. But the concern is likely overblown. Unlike other light industrial uses, like auto body shops and waste transfer stations, cultivation centers generate no noise, pollution, or traffic. Since they’ll be limited to only 95 plants, which produce a total of about 15 pounds of pot per month, you don’t need anything bigger than a car to carry the product to market.
And according to the Apartment and Office Building Association, property assessors wouldn’t discount a building for leasing to a pot-related business. Their focus, instead, is mostly on the amount of rent a landlord is collecting from tenants. “[Cultivation centers] might be analogous to something like a Yes! Organic Market, or a CVS, or maybe a restaurant space—the comparable incomes for similar spaces in other buildings is what assessors are going to turn to first,” says Shaun Pharr, AOBA’s senior vice president for government affairs. Occupying vacant buildings should raise property values, not lower them.
With single-family home sales, some buyers might be put off by perceptions of what it means to live next to a cultivation center. But most people place things like parks, schools, and transportation much higher on their list. And so far, real estate agents, who have a strong interest in high property values, aren’t too worried about it. “No one has really raised a concern as of yet,” says Ed Krauze, chief executive officer of the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors.
Objection number two: Cultivation centers will boost crime. “You may have a state-of-the-art security system, but we have state-of-the-art thieves,” says Regina James, chair of ANC 5B.
Even marijuana advocates don’t pretend that robberies never happen. But the idea that dispensaries generate more crimes than other business isn’t backed up by statistics. In Denver, the police department found that marijuana dispensaries are robbed at a rate similar to banks and liquor stores, neither of which are prohibited in the District.
In D.C., trying to rob a cultivation center would be a fool’s errand because most of what’s there isn’t smokeable. “If you want to break into a cultivation center, what are you going to steal, plants?” says one prospective operator, who declined to be named to avoid attention during the selection process. “You would really have to have incredibly good timing, because there’s a three- to five-day window when you achieve optimal harvest.”
Growers aren’t joking when they say they’ll have state-of-the-art security systems, which make up another 50 points in the Department of Health’s rating system. Bobby Riggs, of Northeast Wellness, plans to have 27 security cameras, plus motion and temperature sensors that would send an alert to his iPhone the second anything happened. He’ll also have a security guard on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That kind of activity would make his stretch of Fenwick Street NE safer, not more dangerous.
Objection number three: Cultivation centers send a bad message to young people. “How can you tell your kids, you shouldn’t be drinking and smoking, as preteens and teenagers, when you have all these liquor stores, marijuana growing facilities, and a dispensary?“ asks Brown, in Woodridge.
Despite the regulations’ prohibition on obvious signage—no pot leaves here!—the news that someone’s growing marijuana will probably get around. But kids will be at least slightly sheltered from them; all cultivation centers must be located 300 feet away from schools. To buy medical marijuana, you’ll need a prescription from a doctor, which is a fairly effective way of making clear that the stuff is medicine, at least according to 69 percent of voters. Customers, at any rate, won’t be strolling through Ward 5: Most dispensaries are likely to be located in an entirely different part of town.
After marijuana’s cultural baggage is stripped away, a cultivation center becomes just another greenhouse. In fact, these operations are even better than ones that grow shrubbery: Because of the competitive selection process, and close oversight from both District and federal law enforcement, applicants have every incentive to benefit the neighborhoods where they reside. Riggs, for example, promises to pour 1 percent of his profits back into local nonprofits, start a community garden, and hire Ward 5 residents. With 10 cultivation centers within a few minutes driving distance of one another, there’s also a golden opportunity for someone to start a hydroponics store, which would be as useful for someone growing orchids or indoor tomatoes as someone growing pot.
Call it a light industrial revolution—the kind that cities are trying to nurture all over the country.
And it’s a hell of a lot better than more strip clubs.
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