Thanks to the D.C. Council’s forward-thinking sensibility, reefer madness is (legally) coming to the District.

The Council has recognized the utility of medical marijuana in light of strong evidence that it is a very effective drug in relieving symptoms associated with a wide range of medical issues, from chronic back pain to AIDS. The Council now awaits Attorney General Eric Holder’s and the U.S. Congress’ approval of its plan to legalize medical marijuana in the District .

The debate over the marijuana question has inspired passionate arguments on both sides. Those opposed have found ammunition in reports on California’s medical marijuana program, enacted in 1996. Due to a dearth of statewide distribution regulation in the Golden State, oversight is often left to local authorities. The resulting free-for-all has spurred reports of physicians who prescribe the drug for less-than-serious conditions and growers who abuse their licenses and produce pot for recreational use.

In addition, the ability of private growers to be licensed for medical production of the drug has triggered the growth of an entire market for marijuana accoutrements. For example, Oakland recently witnessed the opening of iGrow – a supermarket-sized store that carries pot-growing supplies. Opponents of the D.C. Council’s decision may point to the megastore as evidence of a rampant weed-growing culture that is nurtured by medical marijuana laws.

The strictness of the distribution system proposed in the District, however, ought to assuage fears of a similar phenomenon occurring in the city. Individuals will not be able to acquire licenses to grow medical marijuana, and neighboring states Maryland and Virginia still outlaw the drug, making interstate transport difficult.

The D.C. Council seems determined to avoid a California-esque fiasco and has set up a very specific, and limited, distribution proposal. Medical marijuana would be legally available at five District locations. The five dispensaries would be authorized to issue a month’s supply of marijuana at a time to patients who are registered and hold prescriptions. The dispensaries could be set up in any part of the city, as long as they are not located within 1,000 feet of any schools or youth centers. If the legislation passes, the District will be the 15th jurisdiction in the nation to allow the distribution of the drug to chronically ill patients.

Since the D.C. Council proposal has been well crafted, the pros largely outweigh the cons. Although the therapeutic effects of marijuana have not been definitively proven, there is strong empirical and anecdotal evidence that it can alleviate the pain associated with a number of serious conditions. In some cases, it has provided relief where more conventional drugs have failed. Moreover, drugs with much more extreme effects – such as morphine and some derivatives of cocaine – are already made available to patients under certain circumstances.

The D.C. Council’s proposed medical marijuana legislation appears to be a common-sense approach to resolving a contentious issue. If the city can avoid the pitfalls seen in California and adequately monitor doctors who prescribe marijuana, there seems to be no reason the drug should not be granted a newly legal image in D.C.

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