As Medical Marijuana Usage Rises, Participants and Stakeholders Hope for Legislation Changes

Earlier this month, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) reintroduced the STATES act in Congress. If passed, it would allow states to make their own decisions about how marijuana should be used and distributed, independent of federal laws. This could have significant implications on the use of medical marijuana, particularly in the District of Columbia.  

In 2016, the number of patients registered with the D.C. Department of Health Medical Marijuana and Integrative Therapy program was 3,577. According to most recent reports, this number has grown to 5,906, signifying a 65% increase and suggesting that medical marijuana has become more sought after for treating illnesses.

Currently, anyone who has been issued a Medical Marijuana Card by the District Department of Health may possess up to two ounces of medical marijuana per month. However, although marijuana was legalized in D.C. in 2015, its use and possession are still considered a federal offense. These restrictive laws affect users, dispensaries and physicians who are permitted to prescribe the drug.

Carlos Parks, a resident of the Garfield Terrace Senior Living Home, has been using marijuana recreationally since he was 15. However, he only recently became a registered medical cannabis user to treat arthritis as well as several injuries he sustained due to an accident at the gym.

“I injured my leg, my spine, and part of my shoulder. When I went to the doctor, I was telling her that since they made it legal, I might as well go and do that. She said she recommends it to a lot of her patients instead of pain pills because they mess up your liver and other parts of your body.”

Indeed, scientific evidence has shown that the use of opioids such as Oxycodone and Vicodin is linked to acetaminophen toxicity, which can lead to liver damage.

While Parks is relieved that he can now buy medical marijuana as a registered user, laws surrounding where one can smoke marijuana make the process difficult. Last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Peter Newsham announced that although anyone found smoking marijuana in public places would not be taken into custody, they would still face ‘noncustodial arrests’ ; they would have to appear at a local police station within 15 days, and either pay a $25 fine or contest the charge in court. For Parks, living in public housing means that there is no choice but to be covert and hope that he isn’t discovered smoking, since it isn’t permitted in his building or on the premises.

“Even though it’s legal to have a certain amount, they don’t say where you can smoke,” Parks said. “I’m always afraid they’re going to question me or give me a hassle. So I just be careful.”

He noted that this can become very frustrating.

“I have the license, but I can’t smoke? It doesn’t make any common sense to me.”

There is also a concern about the program’s accessibility and affordability.  Sam Pettee, Director of Outreach at the Metropolitan Wellness Center, one of the six dispensaries in D.C., explained that current legislation makes it difficult for business, both on the patient side and the grower side.

“In D.C., the DOH has made the process to get a medical marijuana card extremely hard- especially compared to other jurisdictions,” he said. “In Maryland, if you want to get a card, you fill out a form online, see a doctor, pay the doctor’s fee, and as soon as you’re finished with the doctor you’re approved online, and you can go directly to the dispensary.”  

In D.C., however, it’s a little more costly. “You also have to pay a $100 fee to get your card, and then the DOH usually takes a month to process and get the card back.”

Parks explained that he had to wait even longer – six weeks – and that he isn’t always able to afford the continuous cost of buying from his local dispensary.

“The stuff is expensive. You can buy one to two ounces every month, but one ounce is about $500 to $600. The cheapest you can get a gram is about $17, but that’s still expensive. I go back once or twice a month, but it all depends on how much money I have.”

And, since marijuana is still considered an illegal substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it is not covered by insurance in most cases.

Pettee further stated that dispensaries are limited to where they obtain the marijuana that they sell.  

“The only people we can buy from are the seven cultivators in D.C. that are licensed by the Department of Health. If you try and buy from someone in Maryland or anyone else, the product crosses state lines and all of a sudden it becomes a federal offense.”

As to whether medical marijuana is more effective than traditional pharmaceuticals, Dr. Matthew Mintz says that it is difficult to make a definitive statement.

“It’s hard to know, because they’ve never done those studies. The problem with medical marijuana is that because it’s federally illegal, it’s very hard to do that research. There’s no real study to compare.”

Mintz, who has been a practicing physician in the DMV for 22 years, has recommended over 500 patients for medical marijuana. He has observed positive results in many of them, despite a lack of corroborating research.

“I’m seeing select people, who’ve tried prescription medications that haven’t worked and have caused side effects, and so they’ve come to me for medical cannabis, and many of them have been successful. From what I’ve seen, these medications can be as effective if not more effective than pharmaceuticals and tend to have fewer side effects.”

Even if legislation changes and more progress is made in research, he believes that there is still one thing that needs to be overcome- the aversion that many have to the substance.

“As you see more people talking about it, as more dispensaries pop up, as more patients find relief, that’s decreasing the stigma- but it still exists,” Mintz said. “Very few physicians want to register to certify patients and regular patients I’ve recommended it to are concerned because of that stigma.”