The Pot Industry’s Most Politically Important Dispensary

In the eyes of the federal government, there is no such thing as “medical marijuana.” But there’s a dispensary just blocks from the Capitol.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., second from left, talks while Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., right, dispensary president Mike Cuthriell, Left, and medical marijuana cultivator Corey Barnette, second from the right, listen at the soon-to-open medical marijuana dispensary, Metropolitan Wellness Center, in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
March 21, 2013, 7:10 a.m.

Earli­er this week, Reps. Jared Pol­is and Earl Blumenauer vis­ited a marijuana dis­pens­ary.

They were just blocks away from their con­gres­sion­al of­fices, and with­in months, cer­tain D.C. res­id­ents will be able to come here to leg­ally choose from more than a dozen strains of med­ic­al marijuana, from Mas­ter Kush to Blue Dream. The walls will be packed with va­por­izers, wa­ter pipes, and pre-rolled joints. There will be THC lol­li­pops, baked goods, and cook­books.

But for now, all the law­makers could see was an empty dis­play case and a met­al scale. Un­til the Met­ro­pol­it­an Well­ness Cen­ter opens — sup­posedly with­in the next couple months — the pair of Demo­crats will have to use their ima­gin­a­tions.

“My cam­paign headquar­ters last sum­mer, we shared [a build­ing] with a dis­pens­ary,” Pol­is told Blumenauer in front of a half-dozen Hill staffers, marijuana ad­voc­ates, and cen­ter em­ploy­ees gathered in the al­most com­pletely bar­ren shop room. “You could see the sign, it was like: “˜Marijuana, Jared Pol­is.’ Marijuana out­per­formed me by 10 points, so it was a great as­so­ci­ation for me.”

Pol­is of Col­or­ado and Blumenauer of Ore­gon — two law­makers fight­ing to end the fed­er­al pro­hib­i­tion of pot — hadn’t come to this un­marked shop above the East­ern Mar­ket Popeye’s to buy product. They had come to this dis­pens­ary be­cause just blocks away from the Cap­it­ol, it may soon be­come one of the most polit­ic­ally im­port­ant marijuana dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters in the coun­try.

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“I’ve talked to people all over the coun­try about marijuana,” said Corey Barnette, a prin­cip­al at Dis­trict Grow­ers, the cul­tiv­a­tion fa­cil­ity that will ser­vice the cen­ter. “Every­one is highly fo­cused on what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. We are a city on top of the feds, and with Con­gress right here. If we can make it work, it can work any­where.”

Last year, Pol­is’s home state of Col­or­ado, along with the state of Wash­ing­ton, be­came the first states to leg­al­ize marijuana for re­cre­ation­al use. Places around the coun­try have been loosen­ing their laws, and just this week Mary­land voted to de­crim­in­al­ize small amounts of weed.

But, re­gard­less of what in­di­vidu­al states do, the use or cul­tiv­a­tion of marijuana re­mains a fed­er­al crime un­der the Con­trolled Sub­stance Act. This means that even if state law en­force­ment al­lows for use of the drug, fed­er­al of­fi­cials do not. In the eyes of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, there is no such thing as “med­ic­al marijuana.”

This is where Pol­is and Blumenauer come in. The duo has dropped a series of bills to end the fed­er­al pro­hib­i­tion on the drug, im­pose fed­er­al tax on sale of leg­al pot, and pro­tect the rights of pa­tients us­ing med­ic­al marijuana. At this point, es­pe­cially in a Re­pub­lic­an-run House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, these bills have an up­ward climb to­ward be­com­ing law. But the way things have been shift­ing, that could change rap­idly.

In this sense, the con­gress­men and the dis­pens­ary can help each oth­er out. Dis­trict pot sellers need the pro­tec­tion of a fed­er­al law, and the con­gress­men could use a place to show to their skep­tic­al col­leagues what it really looks like and it’s im­pact on a com­munity.

While Con­gress may be filled with skep­tics, marijuana has surged in pop­ular­ity around the coun­try. In  the 1980s, only about 30 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans thought marijuana should be leg­al. By 2011, half of Amer­ic­ans thought it should be leg­al­ized. Today, 70 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans think doc­tors should be able to pre­scribe marijuana to al­le­vi­ate pain and suf­fer­ing. Ad­voc­ates hope that a dis­pens­ary right in the na­tion’s cap­it­al could be a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in the marijuana-re­form move­ment.

“It’s a very dif­fer­ent dis­cus­sion when you talk with mem­bers who have med­ic­al or leg­al sale of marijuana in their dis­trict versus those who don’t,” Pol­is told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view later at the Cap­it­ol. “It’s ex­tremely hy­po­thet­ic­al for mem­bers who have nev­er seen a dis­pens­ary. This can bring it a little closer to them by let­ting them know how it really works.”

This re­spons­ib­il­ity is not lost on any­one. Per­haps that’s why there are still no dis­pens­ar­ies op­er­at­ing in the Dis­trict, even though it’s been 14 years since the city voted to leg­al­ize med­ic­al marijuana. Most of the wait can be blamed on Con­gress, which blocked fund­ing for the pro­gram un­til 2009. The rest of the time can be chalked up to a bur­den­some reg­u­lat­ory pro­cess that ad­voc­ates say will make the Dis­trict’s pro­gram one of the most re­strict­ive in the coun­try: You can’t grow where you sell; there can only be five dis­pens­ar­ies and a max­im­um of 10 grow­ing cen­ters in the city; grow­ers can only grow a max­im­um of 95 plants; and only D.C. res­id­ents are eli­gible to pur­chase. And even those who ad­here to these reg­u­la­tions have plenty of cause for con­cern.

“Every single day we have to worry: Will the feds come down on this pro­gram simply be­cause they don’t want to see it work?” Barnette said. “That could hap­pen.”

If the goal is to show law­makers what a le­git­im­ate marijuana busi­ness can look like, this is the place.

For one thing, it looks bor­ing. Dis­trict rules state that there be no signs ad­vert­ising the sale of marijuana. To get in, vis­it­ors will pass through an un­marked door, past a se­cur­ity guard, in­to a wait­ing room. The sales­room isn’t much dif­fer­ent. But if Pol­is and Blumenauer want their col­leagues to see the in­side, they need to act quickly. Once the Met­ro­pol­it­an Well­ness Cen­ter is op­er­a­tion­al, it will only be open to those with­in the sys­tem. Mike Cu­thri­ell, the cen­ter’s pres­id­ent, says that even the build­ing’s land­lord will not be al­lowed in once they start selling.

Though not yet able to dis­pense pot, the cen­ter’s staff had plenty of in­form­a­tion to give out to vis­it­ors. Blumenauer and Pol­is peppered the staff with ques­tions about how quickly they could ramp up (the grow­ers could be at full ca­pa­city with 75 days of start­ing to grow), how much per week they could grow (between 25 and 40 pounds), wheth­er they had soph­ist­ic­ated strains for dif­fer­ent ail­ments (they are work­ing on it), and what the cost would be like com­pared to the black mar­ket (should be cheap­er).

“My only source for how cheap it is on the black mar­ket comes from Pri­ceof­,” Cu­thri­ell said.

“I won­der how much that do­main cost?” Blumenauer said, rais­ing his eye­brows and chuck­ling. Des­pite there not be­ing any drugs on the premises, be­ing here seemed to have giv­en the law­makers something of a con­tact high by the end of the tour, as they star­ted to loosen up and crack jokes.

“A lot of Hill staff live here, you’ll prob­ably even have some as pa­tients,” Pol­is said.

“Yeah, giv­en the chron­ic pain we give them,” Blumenauer chimed in. “Naus­ea maybe? The rules are prob­ably too tight for them to qual­i­fy.”

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