Waiting To Inhale: D.C. Marijuana Program Sees Delays

WASHINGTON, DC, 4 May 2013 — D.C. voters first approved legislation legalizing medical marijuana in 2010. The city’s first licensed dispensary is poised to open in a few weeks, but the wait has been difficult for patients who have been waiting on the sidelines.

Lenley Wadley, a resident of the Petworth neighborhood, has suffered from symptoms of multiple sclerosis since 1982, when he was just 17 years old. His condition causes pain in his joints, and largely confines him to a wheelchair.

“It sort of affects my nerves, so even though sometimes it doesn’t look like anything, you see me walking and I look OK, my nerves are frayed and frayed and frayed,” Wadley says.

Wadley says marijuana helps numb the pain from his multiple sclerosis like nothing else he’s tried. The problem is, the dispensaries still aren’t selling to him or any other patients.

Multiple sclerosis is one of just four qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in the District, which has one of the most stringent laws in the country. Other qualifying conditions include HIV/AIDS, cancer and glaucoma.

Dispensaries waiting on a signal

Capital City Care was the first medical marijuana dispensary to be granted a license. It’s also expected to be the first to dispense marijuana to patients.

With exposed brick on the wall and lightly-colored hardwood floors, the dispensary resembles the waiting room in an upscale doctor’s office. Step outside its doors, and you can see the Capitol Dome straight down North Capitol Street.

As the only medical marijuana operation in the District to obtain both a cultivation and dispensary license, Communications Director Scott Morgan says they plan to carry between four to eight different strains of cannabis to cater to different patient needs.

“You have to keep in mind that the medical benefits really do depend on the strain and on the person,” Morgan says. “The strain that works best on Patient A might not work well on Patient B, even if they have the same condition.”

Morgan says they have marijuana harvested and ready to sell, but final approvals for customers have not yet made it through the Department of Health.

The process established in the District is, in Morgan’s words, “patient-driven.” Would-be patients must request that their doctors approve the use of marijuana as treatment. Doctors then must request forms from the Department of Health.

Only once those are returned and processed can a patient can be given a card and be allowed access to the dispensary.

The system has proved slower to get going than many had imagined. Registration forms are still making their way out to doctors’ offices, and there is a considerable amount of confusion about who is responsible for taking the next steps.

Delays frustrate those who have been waiting

For people like Wadley, the problems go beyond just getting the right forms from the city government. Getting a referral from a physician isn’t a simple matter of making a few calls — it’s a process that can take months. The number of doctors who will accept Medicaid is small, and often have long waiting lists.

Medical marijuana is also neither free or even subsidized for those on government aid.

“It’s going to end up being similar to the prices that you see marijuana sold for in other marijuana states across the country,” Morgan says. “So probably in the neighborhood of $100 to $120 per quarter ounce.”

For those on a fixed income like Wadley, that can represent a serious financial commitment, and it speaks to the seriousness with which they approach their treatment.

“The bureaucracy involved with all this is crazy,” Wadley says. “It’s like I’m the scourge of the Earth. All I want to do is relax.”

Morgan expects their doors will be open to patients like Wadley some time in May.

For now, all they can do is wait.

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