Marijuana legislation leaves D.C. residents in gray area

Marijuana GIF

By Matias J. Ocner

Read in SHFWire

WASHINGTON – In her apartment a block from the bustling streets and crowded Metro station of the Van Ness neighborhood 4 miles up the road from the White House, Pamela Kelly, 49, has been meticulously growing marijuana for five months.

A bright yellow light breaks through as Kelly slowly unzips a grow house in the guest room of her third-floor apartment. Four marijuana plants sit on the floor covered by a makeshift aluminum contraption that keeps her plants healthy.

“I am attached to these girls,” said Kelly, who named the plants after her friends. “I talk to them, I play music for them, when it comes time for me to feed and water them, we get down and dirty.”

Kelly hopes to someday leave her mortgage company job and put her newfound knowledge of marijuana to work. But for now, selling pot is illegal in the District of Columbia.

After Initiative 71, which legalized the possession of marijuana, passed with 70 percent of the vote in November 2014, the D.C. Council quickly began working on a bill that would regulate the sale of pot in the nation’s capital.

The council planned to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington state, but Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., added a rider to the 2014 congressional spending bill that prevented D.C. from using any money to regulate marijuana.

That means D.C. residents 21 and older may legally  possess 2 ounces of marijuana, cultivate up to six plants and share their pot with others. But they can’t sell it, and the District can’t tax it.

Without a regulatory system, residents have found loopholes to sell marijuana and risk penalties such as fines and jail.

“I imagine that it would take place, because people aren’t just going to give it away. This is one of the big reasons I wanted to move forward with a full tax and regulations program in the District of Columbia,” D.C. Council Member David Grosso, I-At Large, said. He was the main sponsor of the quashed regulatory bill.

“By just having what we have now, where it’s legal for you to grow it yourself, share it with some friends, I think it does create a lot of gray area if not this entire gray market,” Grosso said.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, which lacks voting representation in Congress or statehood.

“If Congress would let me move forward with my bill to tax and regulate marijuana, we could give some certainty,” said Grosso, who believes cannabis should be tested, sold and taxed. “Being able to track it ensures that we have a good system in place and ensures that our community is actually not subjected to any kind of problems.”

A light drizzle fell over Alex Jeffrey, 27, as he climbed on a wooden bench and faced the crowd on the roof of Park Tavern, a restaurant four blocks from Nationals Park in D.C.’s Navy Yard area.

The tiny metal marijuana leaf pinned to Jeffrey’s flat cap shimmered in the dark, as a spectator turned on her cellphone’s flash and began to record the group’s monthly meeting.

“NORML is here to change the world, and it’s here to change the laws,” said Jeffrey, the executive director and founder of the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“We need your support to make sure that when we go, and we party, and we have these grow meetings, and have these awesome times, that it’s supported, and substantiated by what we do,” Jeffrey said. “We’re going to get organized, and we’re going to be doing things that are effective for our organization.”

Within the group of activists is Kelly, also known as “Mama K” to the members.

She joined NORML after seeing how comfortable D.C. residents were about marijuana, a stark contrast from the conservative community she knew when she lived in Manassas, Va., a suburban town about 30 miles southeast of D.C.

Kelly still remembers being stunned the first time she entered a legal medical marijuana dispensary.

“It was a big culture shock to be able to go into someplace and speak freely about marijuana and be OK with saying bong, or saying pot, or saying weed, and not being looked at in a horrible way or being judged,” she said.

This stigma has been slowly disappearing across the country.

According to a Pew Research Center report released this year, 53 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, up from 32 percent in 2010.

When Kelly’s doctor wanted to do a second brain surgery, her March move to D.C. was a logical choice.

“That’s when I decided to take that leap of faith and move out of my comfort zone,” said Kelly, who suffers from severe migraines. “My quality of life has been 150 percent better.”

Kelly enrolled for a medical marijuana card almost immediately after settling into her son’s apartment. The D.C. Council passed legislation in May 2010 that allowed for the establishment of a regulated medical marijuana program. Congress had blocked the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in 1998, but finally let it go into effect.

Marijuana Patients

According to the D.C. Department of Health, as of November, there were 4,670 registered patients who can legally buy medical marijuana, up from 362 at the program’s inception.

One of the first dispensaries to open its doors to patients like Kelly was Takoma Wellness Center. Run by Jeffrey Kahn, the dispensary is well-known for its family owned and operated business model.

Kahn, 63, an ordained rabbi for 27 years, began applying for a dispensary license in 2010, after it became legal, and started welcoming patients more than two years ago.

“Since we’ve opened, people have had safe and legal access to medical marijuana, and as a result, have been able to find great relief for symptoms and issues,” said Kahn, who sees about 100 patients each day.

Jeffrey Kahn, 63, runs Takoma Wellness Center, a medical marijuana dispensary in Washington D.C. Kahn is an ordained rabbi for 27 years and opened the dispensary with his family 2½ years ago. SHFWire photo by Matias J. Ocner

Jumping into the medical marijuana field was almost a calling for Kahn and his wife, Stephanie, who saw firsthand the benefits marijuana could bring.

After his father-in-law, Jules Reifkind, was diagnosed with the illness in 1964, he spent his life searching the globe for a solution.

“My two sons grew up knowing that their grandfather had multiple sclerosis, and sometimes, he’d used a bong to help him,” said Kahn, who was born and raised in Miami.

“He tried just about everything, from any kind of pharmaceutical you can think of, to snake venom, to biofeedback,” Kahn said. “Along the way, a doctor recommended cannabis.”

Now, the rabbi hopes to provide his service to as many patients as possible.

“Sooner or later, the Harris Amendment will fall, away and the District leaders will be able to do this properly,” said Kahn, who believes recreational and medical programs will live side-by-side in the District.

A major milestone for the medical program was in 2014, when the D.C. Council removed a restrictive list of conditions and left physicians in charge of choosing who qualifies for cannabis – opening the door for the inclusion of children.

Lisa Leyden’s normal weekday afternoon routine was picking up her two sons from school and asking them how their day went. But one day four years ago when her oldest son, Jackson, 8, didn’t respond, she knew something was wrong.

“I turned around and he was staring out of the car, eyes fixed, gazed up to the right,” said Leyden, 44, a Washington resident of more than 20 years.

“I said, ‘Jackson,’ and he didn’t answer me,” said Leyden, an audiologist with a practice in suburban Maryland. “I thought, Oh my God, he’s having silent seizures.”

Leyden called her husband, John, and Georgetown University Hospital. By the next day, doctors were running tests. This was the start of a long road for the family that eventually led them to seek relief for their son in marijuana.

Lisa Leyden, 44, has been using cannabis oil to treat her son’s epilepsy. Leyden lives in Washington and is an audiologist with a practice in suburban Maryland. She has seen significant progress with her son’s health, 18 months after he began using cannabidiol. SHFWire Photo by Matias J. Ocner

After several hospital visits, Jackson was diagnosed with epilepsy, a disorder in which nerve cell activity in the brain is disturbed, causing seizures.

The Leydens were distraught. In the next few years, Jackson missed countless days of school, visited multiple hospitals and tried 13 different antiepileptic drugs, with no positive results.

“Things just got worse and worse,” Leyden said. “They increased the dosage so much, that he was walking around like a zombie.”

One morning, Leyden saw a newspaper story about how a family in California was using cannabis to treat their child’s epilepsy. She and her husband started to do research.

Jackson has been using oil extracted from a special strain of cannabis that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabidiol, or CBD, and his mom sees improvements.

“Once we were consistently able to get access to CBD products and find a strain that works for Jackson, not only was he able to go to school every day, he was actually learning,” said Leyden, who found a steady supply of CBD oil from Takoma Wellness Center.

Whether cannabis can be beneficial for those who suffer from epilepsy is still scientifically unclear.

Testing on marijuana has been restricted since the 1970s because of the Controlled Substance Act, which allowed the Drug Enforcement Administration to rank cannabis as a Schedule I drug.

According to the DEA, Schedule I drugs have no currently accepted medical use and possess a high potential for abuse. They rank marijuana alongside narcotics like ecstasy, heroin and LSD.

“We don’t have a good grasp to how effective it is,” said Dr. Marc Schlosberg, a neurologist affiliated with MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “There is no way to know, until cannabidiol is rigorously tested as other medicine.”

Leyden, on the other hand, is convinced marijuana has medical properties.

“Opponents of the medical marijuana program were worried there would be more crime. That it would be a gateway, but no, this is finally healing my child, and giving our family hope that we didn’t have for so long,” Leyden said.

However, the line between what is legal and illegal in D.C. remains hazy.

Alex Jeffrey and Richie Bobby, 29, still in his pajamas, lit a joint an hour before noon one recent day.

Smoke filled the living room as the two men sat near marijuana paraphernalia. Posters and other NORML pamphlets decorate a large cork board hanging in the white two-story home nestled in D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood.

In a separate room, two tall marijuana grow kits sit plugged into electricity. Bobby spends most of his free time tending to the plants inside.

“There are plenty of individuals that are willing to carry marijuana and sell it, and there are even more that want to buy it,” Jeffrey said. “I mean, if they are carrying less than 2 ounces, it’s going to be real hard for anybody to do anything about it.”

According to the D.C. police department, only seven people have been arrested for possessing marijuana this year, down from 895 in 2014, when having marijuana was illegal.

“The people that still want it, which are rampant, are buying it from the black market,” said Jeffrey. “The need for pot doesn’t change regardless if it’s legal or not.”

Reach reporter Matias J. Ocner at matias.ocner@scripps.com or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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