Twelve years after District of Columbia voters expressed their overwhelming support for legalizing medical marijuana, the local government is finally poised to put the will of the people into effect. A bill currently under review by the D.C. Council would provide long-awaited relief to those suffering from many serious ailments while minimizing the risk of congressional interference.
Although 69 percent of voters approved the 1998 initiative to legalize medical marijuana, their opinion was disregarded by Congress, which prohibited the city from spending any money on implementing legalization. With that ban lifted last summer and the Justice Department no longer interfering with local marijuana laws, the District now has the opportunity to align city policy with public opinion.
The new bill, co-sponsored by nine of the council’s 13 members, represents not only the reversal of Congress’s undemocratic interference, but also demonstrates compassion for the city’s chronically ill residents. Among other medical uses, marijuana has been shown to counteract nausea, appetite loss, pain, and anxiety in AIDS and cancer patients, relieve the effects of glaucoma, and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, the entrenched “War on Drugs” mindset has turned what should be a clear-cut medical decision into yet another battle in the culture wars. But with medical marijuana legalized in 14 states in as many years, Americans are starting to see it is possible to extend the medical benefits of the plant to suffering patients without inviting rampant drug abuse.
While concern for the democratic process and compassion for the chronically ill compel the council to move forward with legalization, as with any controversial issue in D.C., all legislative decisions must be made with the possibility of congressional interference in mind. As the case of California has shown, legalizing medical marijuana without proper regulations can effectively legalize recreational use of the drug. The Democrat-controlled Congress is not likely to put the District to task for following the lead of 14 other states in legalizing medical marijuana, but it may step in if the system is inadequately regulated.
The council seems to recognize this dilemma. The bill’s lead sponsor, Council member David Catania (I—At Large), recently told The Washington Post that the law must guard against a “Camp Run-amok program that invites [Congress] to come in and shut it down.” Although some of the provisions in the current bill may be unfeasible—the requirement that dispensaries be located at least 1,000 feet away from schools and youth centers would effectively deny service to many parts of the city—but by limiting the number of dispensaries to five and emphasizing strict regulation, the District has a good shot at avoiding congressional meddling while giving patients with chronic illnesses the relief they have been waiting for.