DC's Weed Czar, Mohammed Akhter, Says He's Never Tried Marijuana

The head of the District Department of Health talks about overseeing the advent of medical marijuana in Washington.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Dr. Mohammed Akhter. Photograph courtesy of the DC Department of Health. 

Dr. Mohammed Akhter is head of the DC Department of Health. In that role, he is overseeing the implementation of the sale of medical marijuana in the nation's capital. Essentially, he's DC's weed czar, and legally so. Last week he announced the names of the cultivation centers that will grow the marijuana, all of them in Northeast. Next he will announce the distribution centers.

Akhter takes the task seriously, as you might expect from someone with an extensive background in public service and academia. A native of Pakistan, he has a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University and a medical degree from King Edward Medical College in Lahore, Pakistan. He has been executive director of the American Public Health Association and executive director of the National Medical Association. He became head of the Health Department in 2011, his second time serving in the DC government. In between those assignments he taught at the Howard University College of Medicine.

We talked to Akhter about his role in the imminent arrival of medical marijuana in DC.

Now that you have announced the cultivation centers, when will you announce who will have the licenses for distribution centers?

The applications are going through the process of review, and we anticipate the review will be completed by the end of May. I expect the middle of June is the earliest we will have that decision.

When will the first ounce of marijuana be sold to a medical patient in DC?

If we get people the opportunity to open their dispensaries by the middle of June, it will probably be another month for them to make all the arrangements they need to make to get their business licenses in order. They could be selling by the middle of August.

Will the distribution centers span all the wards?

We don't know. Right now there are many applicants. There will be only five centers, so there might be five wards with one each and some that have none.

Chosen because of location or suitability?

The distribution centers can't be close to a school or daycare center. Most of the focus is on the ability to maintain records, security, the ability to distribute the product appropriately, and making sure all the labeling and eduction material is provided to the recipients.

What will the marijuana cost retail buyers? Will it reflect the street price or be more or less expensive?

I have no idea about this. I think it all depends on the supply and demand. We are going to monitor it to see where it's at. The emphasis will be on it being affordable for the patients who need it.

Who will own the marijuana?

I think the growers own it. When the cultivation is done, it goes to the dispensaries, and then they own it.

Who controls what they charge?

Nobody controls that. It's the free market in our society.

What is the city's cut?

There's no cut for the city. It is basically a fee for a business license. There's no tax.

Are doctors being briefed on how to prescribe medical marijuana?

I think we will start that process pretty soon. Up to this point we were going through the process of recommending the cultivation centers. I will be meeting with the medical society to figure out the best way to provide information to physicians and other providers in the city.

Do you anticipate growth in the numbers of cultivation and distribution centers?

No. These numbers are limited by the legislation, which only provides for up to ten growing centers and five dispensaries. We can't change that until the law is changed. We have some flexibility in the sense that if we see the demand far exceeds the supply, we might allow people to grow more plants. Right now the limit is 95 plants per center.

How will DC differ from all the other locales offering medical marijuana?

I think the big difference is that this is the most restrictive program in the nation.

Will the marijuana be sold only to DC residents or to anyone with an appropriate prescription?

Anyone who lives in DC is eligible for the program once the doctor issues a prescription. Then we give them an identification card with their picture on it, and that's the only way you can get something from the dispensary.

Are licenses needed for the sale of paraphernalia?

Not to my knowledge. They need to have routine business licenses.

Will there be a limit to the number of paraphernalia stores that can open in the city?

We don't have authority to control that.

Do you feel it is important that distributors be familiar with their products, that they should try them before they sell?

No. I think it is important they are familiar with the way to grow it and that they grow it in an appropriate fashion with security and quality controls and make it available only to those who need it.

Have you smoked marijuana?

Not myself, and I don't believe any member of my family has tried it in any form.

What do you say to critics who complain medical marijuana is nothing more than a way to make money off of an illegal drug?

We're not making money off of this. They are private businesses. That's the American way.