One of the city’s first medical marijuana dispensaries, literally in view of the Capitol dome, is scheduled to open in just a few weeks, and its operators believe it should be a model for the nation. The owners and designers of the facility, Capital City Care, will tell you that if it looks and feels like a cross between a doctor’s office and a spa, it was intentional. This, however, is a doctor’s office and spa with redundant and high security—and marijuana. They will also tell you, many times over, that what they do and how they do it is all about the patient.
On Monday morning, as an untimely spring snow turned to slush on the bright blue building’s front and back steps, David A. Guard and Scott Morgan of CCC, and architects David Shove Brown and David Tracz of Studio 3877, met with The Washingtonian to give a full tour of the dispensary and to talk about the details of the business they are about to open. Only once did they pull a door shut and say a particular room was off limits, due to Department of Health regulations. But the DC government, the process of getting the legal grow centers and dispensaries open, and the strict requirements involved prompted a careful language that threads through everything the men have to say.
In all, Capital City involves “about a dozen” people, according to Guard, some of them investor partners and some of them employees. Guard and Morgan are the visible members of the team, and even they aren’t sure how much they want to deal with the media. They are purposefully vague about certain particulars. Again, it’s about the patients—and Guard, who is the general manager, has firsthand experience. He teared up as he mentions a friend who had terminal brain cancer and whose doctors recommended medical marijuana, which Guard says eased the remainder of his life as much as possible.
Through our hourlong chat, Guard, Morgan, Brown, and Tracz were forthcoming as they gave an early look inside a world that patients and the public have been curious about for the past several years, as legal medical marijuana made its way from a controversial proposal to a law and then to implementation. They showed off the conjoined townhouses on North Capitol Street, which Brown and Tracz have transformed with exposed brick, clean walls, and surfaces made of bamboo for its warm hues. Brown says their goal was to go against preconceived notions of what a dispensary would look like—“You know, seedy and back alley,” he says. “The idea is it’s a warm environment and all about the patient.”
It is a contemporary and soothing environment, though one can’t help but notice ceiling cameras, fingerprint-activated biometric locks, motion detectors, alarm notices, and an interior security desk adjacent to the locked door that separates the reception area from the area where actual sales will be conducted. All security is hard-wired to the Metropolitan Police Department. The selling room is supplied with at least three scales. There’s also a paraphernalia boutique featuring the same clean, bright design. There are potted plants around, but not those kinds of plants.
Read on for what Guard and Morgan had to say about the facility.
How did you and your partners get involved in this business?
David Guard: It’s an issue I’ve cared deeply about for years. I was actually in grad school for a masters in public policy at American University when DC passed the law. A professor of mine encouraged me to get involved, and I did. I collected signatures, worked the polls. It was 1998. So I’ve been through the 15-year stretch.
When are you actually opening?
Guard: We should be open mid-April, as long as everything goes just fine. We’ve had all our inspections, we’ve jumped through every hoop that there is except for that one final walk-through with the DOH, folks from the DDOE [District Department of the Environment], and the MPD and DCRA [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs]. They will then give us our final registration certificate and our ID badges. Every employee, every owner, every director has an ID badge. After we’re registered you can only be in here if you have a badge or are a patient or caregiver, and even then you will have a health-issue ID. They [the city] are trying to be extremely careful in implementing this.
Do you see that as a positive? Because you don’t want to be shut down right after you open?
Guard: Right. You look at what’s going on in other states, and they are a bit tentative at times, and what [DC] wanted to do was avoid any of that, avoid drawing the ire of the DEA or the federal government in any way. Go step by step very carefully, show everybody this is really about the patients, have only a few conditions and diseases for which people can receive medical marijuana, and stretch it out. This went through four rule-making sessions. Everybody’s on board with it, but at the same time everybody wants to be really careful.
So you are happy with the way the city has handled it?
Guard: Yeah, I really am. Because they’ve been so careful to introduce doctors to this, slowly as well, and they are now learning about the program very carefully. They are going to do their patients a great service by being careful and thinking through the process.
Scott Morgan: Keep in mind also that participation in the program by doctors is going to be decided on a case-by-case basis, when patients come to their own doctor and say, “I want to be part of the program.” As long as you have a qualifying condition, and it’s a doctor who is licensed in DC, that doctor can write a recommendation. They don’t have to interact with the Department of Health. Any doctor who is licensed and seeing a patient on an ongoing basis can do it.
Will the doctors who write medical marijuana prescriptions be primarily oncologists and pain-management specialists?
Guard: Primary-care physicians, particularly the HIV/AIDS community. Ophthalmologists, infectious disease. People taking protease inhibitors. There’s a variety of conditions.
Have you had doctors come in to tour the facility?
Guard: No. It’s really patient driven. We’ve had [patients] who are what we call pre-registered, people who have approached us over the past few months, and I can tell you as we get closer to the start date it has just been increasing. Last week I got a knock at the back door from two different gentlemen, and they didn’t even come together. One had leukemia and the other has glaucoma. As I was speaking with them, a knock at the front door happened, and it was an AIDS/HIV patient. Three within five minutes.
What will be the hours and days of operation?
Guard: We’re going to be open from 10 to 7 every day. But initially it might be scattered. We’ll see what the patients need.
Morgan: We’re starting with a small staff. We want to see how things unfold, just the process of getting patients signed up, getting the doctor recommendation forms. It might be initially that there are only five patients who received IDs in the first active week of the program. We might do things by appointment, or if we see everyone is interested in coming in at the same time, we might do those hours. But eventually, every day.
Do you only service DC residents, or are Maryland and Virginia included? What about tourists or travelers?
Guard: Only DC residents. There are five states that have reciprocity [for out-of-state patients], but DC is not one of them.
What grow house will you use? Only one or all of them?
Guard: We’re fortunate enough to be vertically integrated. We’re the only organization in DC allowed to have a cultivation center and a dispensary. Our cultivation center is on Channing Street, and it is ready to go. We have one more inspection to go. There’s one cultivator that’s actually growing right now. That’s why we’re talking mid-April, because that’s when they say they’ll have product.*
When will you start growing on Channing Street? And how long before you’ll have usable product?
Guard: Probably within hours of when we receive registration. By the Department of Health’s rules, the plants have to be in the ground 60 days.
Do you mean literally “in the ground,” as in there is a farm?
Morgan: No. It’s a soil-less mixture. The growing is done indoors. It’s technically not dirt. [laughs] We’re not growing on the Mall.
Guard: The techniques are so sophisticated today. Remember, we’re growing pharmaceutical-grade [marijuana]. Essentially what that means is it is very, very high end. It’s free of any kinds of pests or molds. The profile for each of the plants is very specific, and we want to have the highest quality. The different ailments patients suffer from require different ratios of cannabinoids.
Morgan: Certain strains tend to be more helpful to different patients. What we can tell people is, “This particular strain is popular with people who have your condition.” What we’ll be offering is a good cross-section of some of the most helpful strains. Our staff will be more familiar with the healing properties of these strains than a doctor would. We will be able to [inform] this strain might be better for anxiety, this one better for pain relief, this one better for nighttime, this one for daytime.
Have you tried the products?
Guard: We can’t do that. Only a licensed patient can receive the medicine. There’s enough general knowledge out there that we don’t need to sample the product.
Will you have a doctor on the premises?
Morgan: No. We’re prohibited by the regulations. When patients arrive, they will have already gotten their recommendation. We haven’t met the doctor. The way that works is the patient goes to the doctor and says they are interested in this, and if the doctor agrees, and certifies the patient has one of the conditions that is covered, they fill out the paperwork and the patient takes that over to the Department of Health, where they are issued an ID card—and that is their key to the dispensary. We don’t see the patient until that point.
Can they get in the door without a card?
Morgan: No. When they get to the front door they will be met by a guard. We’re using former police as the guards. After that they will be buzzed in and come to the reception desk, where they will get put in a queue. They can sit in the reception area, and the sales staff will be notified they are here.
Where are the other dispensaries?
Morgan: Eastern Market and Takoma Park. They are going to be opening up soon, as well. In the near future there will only be these three. There were four approved, but we’re not sure of the status of the fourth location.
Do you expect this to be a success? Do you expect smooth sailing?
Guard: I do. I really do. There is that fear, the federal issue, but we’re so driven by what the patients really need that we’re willing to take that risk. We’re unsure how risky it really is, ultimately, but I think because DOH is so careful and the City Council was so careful, the slow implementation, the small plant count right now, and the limited number of patients who can receive it, this is really a model for the nation. The federal government, I believe, should put their stamp of approval on it. This is how medical marijuana should be done, and we’re going to show that it can be done.
*This post has been updated from a previous version.