DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: As medical marijuana slowly draws near to becoming a reality in Washington, D.C., much has been made of the fact that licensed pot dealers will soon be opening their doors in the shadows of the White House and under the noses of the Justice Department and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Questions abound: Will the feds raid the dispensaries? Can licensed patients be hauled off to federal prison? Will President Obama’s next race summit be around a bowl of Afghan Kush?
While the talk has largely centered around how and where this very restricted form of legalized weed will be made available to a narrow class of patients, the focus in one corner of town is on where the marijuana soon to be lining dispensary shelves is going to be grown.
Four of the six medical weed cultivators approved to do business in the District of Columbia are clustered in a single neighborhood in Northeast D.C., a decision that raised eyebrows among residents and some local lawmakers when the growers were announced last year. In the meantime, legislators have turned to zoning and land-use restrictions to further limit the areas in which cultivation centers can produce their bud. The D.C. model mirrors efforts in other parts of the country where weed has been legalized to one extent or another, as more and more local officials are utilizing land-use laws to regulate the industry.
Zoning and land-use restrictions are at the forefront of marijuana regulation because this is where local governments can actually act, explains Patricia Salkin, dean of the Touro College Law Center in Central Islip, New York. “When it comes to questions of licensing and qualification – who’s available to have it and who’s available to sell it – that really comes from the state,” Salkin says. “At the local government level, it’s a community development issue.”
D.C. is a unique animal, given its status as the country’s only semi-federal city, but many of its medical marijuana restrictions have been similarly shaped by local community concerns. Dispensaries and the cultivation centers that stock them are banned from the District’s residential neighborhoods and must be more than 300 feet away from schools and recreation centers. The fair play zone is even further narrowed for growers, which can’t operate in the city’s “retail priority areas.” That includes all of downtown, along with large swaths of rapidly developing neighborhoods like the H Street Northeast corridor, Columbia Heights, Mt. Vernon Square and Shaw.
The restrictions make the District’s Ward 5, home to nearly half of the city’s remaining industrial land, a logical spot for medical marijuana growers. Five of the six approved cultivators are in Ward 5. Four are in the ward’s Langdon neighborhood alone, among a mix of working class single-family homes, warehouses and body shops that straddle commuter train tracks.
All of the cultivation centers setting up shop in the ward had already selected their locations before the retail priority embargo was enacted in March. The measure, which passed unanimously, was sponsored by Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander in order to give the boot to a cultivation center set to open on a developing stretch of road in her ward.