An Update on Medical Marijuana in DC: Patients Must Be Patient

It could be months before dispensaries open in Washington.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

There’s good news and bad news for patients eager for medical marijuana dispensaries to open in DC. The good news is the Department of Health has named four dispensaries, and the owners of those dispensaries have completed the necessary review before Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and other panels, and DOH has begun to reach out to doctors. The bad news is that few doctors appear interested and none of the cultivation centers has begun to grow any marijuana due to a variety of issues, including delays in construction, licensing, and setting up utilities, and security. Once the grow centers have resolved all those issues and become fully registered, it will be 60 days before they can sell any product to the dispensaries.

There’s also a change at the top of DOH. Dr. Mohammed Akhter, who was head of the Department of Health and known as the District’s “weed czar,” has taken an unpaid leave of absence to join the executive board of the city’s new Health Benefit Exchange Authority. His interim replacement is Dr. Saul Levin, a psychiatrist. For now, the two people overseeing the implementation of medical marijuana in the city are Dr. Feseha Woldu, head of DOH’s Health and Regulatory Licensing Administration, and Patricia D’Antonio, a pharmacist, who is the program manager. We checked in with Woldu and D’Antonio on Tuesday for a medical marijuana update.

They make it clear they are not discouraged by the delays in getting the cultivation centers up and running. “We knew this was going to be a difficult process,” says Woldu. “We want to make sure we do it carefully to protect the integrity of the program.”

The city had planned to license five dispensaries, but only four made the cut, a decision based on several categories of grading including location, business plan, and security. The four official dispensaries are Herbal Alternatives (1147 20th Street, Northwest, in Ward 2); Takoma Wellness Center (6925 Blair Road, Northwest, in Ward 4); VentureForth (1334 North Capitol Street, Northwest, in Ward 5); and Metropolitan Wellness Center Corporation (409 Eighth Street, Southeast, in Ward 6).

Woldu said a fifth dispensary could be named at a later date. D’Antonio said some of the applicants who did not win the licenses have filed appeals for review with DC Superior Court. She said that ongoing process will not delay the opening of cultivation centers or the dispensaries.

In the past several weeks, Woldu and D’Antonio have begun sending letters to all the doctors who are licensed by the District, regardless of where they have their offices. They said the number was about 10,000. “We sent all of them a letter introducing them to the medical marijuana program,” Woldu said. “We also sent a form for them to send back to us if they are interested in participating.” So far, he said, approximately 100 doctors have sent back the form letting DOH know they are “conceptually interested in participating.” The doctors don’t have to be based in DC, but they have to be licensed by DC, and the patients receiving prescriptions have to be DC residents.

When we asked Woldu if he thought patients would be able to buy medical marijuana in DC before the end of the year, he said, “It’s very difficult to predict the date. We don’t want to set a date and then not meet it.” But his office is not idle, he said. “We encourage everyone involved to move as fast as they can.”