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At a D.C. Council hearing Thursday morning, public witness Valencia Mohammed offered councilmembers a gift: packages of weed-infused brownies, baked at the edibles dispensary she co-owns, MamaJuana.
But for patients who rely on medical marijuana in the District, Mohammed argues, such a transaction isn’t so simple. At a joint hearing of the Committee on Health and Human Services and Committee on Judiciary, Mohammed and other advocates raised concerns that District laws concerning medical marijuana are slow to catch up with high demand, resulting in a shortage of products.
“D.C. is moving at a slow pace,” says Mohammed, adding that in Colorado, residents can grow up to 99 plants in their homes alone. “The supply is still not enough for the demand.”
Mohammad and others are calling for permanent enactment of the Medical Marijuana Cultivation Center Expansion Act of 2015, a piece of emergency legislation introduced by At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange that was passed in July to help cultivators meet demand for their product.
One year before, the Council upped the number of living plants that cultivators can grow from 95 to 500. The new act increases that number to 1,000, and allows cultivators to expand their facilities into adjacent properties to accommodate more plants.
D.C. law currently permits residents 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and home-grow up to six plants, of which no more than three can be mature. But the only way to purchase the drug is through a medical prescription.
Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. Department of Health, says that the 2014 iteration of the act contributed to a 60 percent increase in medical marijuana patients in the District. At the end of September, she says, 4,362 patients were enrolled, and the program accepts roughly 300 new members each month.
Not only would the 2015 act increase the supply on the market, but advocates also argue it would drive down prices, increase availability of non-smoking products like edibles and oils, and up the variety of strains.
Still, Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who chairs the Committee on Health and Human Services, voiced some skepticism of the purported need at the hearing. Almost none of the seven medical marijuana cultivation centers in D.C. have reached the 1,000 plant count (and some, not even the 500 count), she says, so why the need to raise the threshold now?
Corey Barnette, owner of local dispensary District Growers, argues that those numbers are misleading: Cultivators simply don’t have the space yet. Even with the temporary act’s allowances for space, the process of opening an adjacent facility to house more plants can take months, he says.
“The unfortunate reality is that to expand into adjacent space, there’s buildout time there, there’s permitting processes, there’s [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] that you have to deal with,” he says. “There’s all sorts of other things that go on that create a significant timeline between when you can actually start growing.”
That’s why Barnette thinks enacting the expansion act isn’t enough. Instead, he wants to make the plant count unlimited.
Dr. Malik Burnett, a resident physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Healthand a former policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, agrees, calling the plan “short-sighted.” By the time cultivators have upped their plant count to 1,000, he says, the patient base will have grown exponentially, exceeding the supply once again.
“Under current conditions, this legislation is at best a stop-gap measure,” he says. “We should be under no illusion that we will ultimately find ourselves here again facing a medical marijuana shortage in the next 12 months.”