Atlantic Cities

In D.C., Medical Marijuana Is All About Location, Location, Location

In D.C., Medical Marijuana Is All About Location, Location, Location
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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.

So why did Ward 5 become D.C.'s pot growing district? "Industrial zoned land lends itself to these types of businesses," says councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who represents the area.

For Capital City Care, the only business approved to operate both a dispensary and a cultivation facility, choosing the latter's location was mostly a cost decision. "We had to think carefully about overhead and what we could afford to pay for a facility that is sustainable and complied with the restrictions," communications director Scott Morgan says of selecting the Langdon warehouse where the company is currently growing marijuana plants. "I think that's why so many of the cultivation centers that were approved were in Ward 5. There weren't suitable facilities elsewhere in the city."

All but two of the 28 cultivation center applicants reviewed by the city listed addresses in Ward 5. Future applicants will have to look elsewhere, however. The city council passed a law introduced by McDuffie earlier this year capping the number of grow houses per ward at five.

D.C.'s strict approach to the geography of medical marijuana mirrors measures in other parts of the country, including California, where some cities have drawn on zoning laws to limit and even outlaw medical weed businesses. In May, the state's Supreme Court upheld the city of Riverside's complete ban on weed dispensaries, which officials deemed a "public nuisance."

Lawmakers across Washington state are scrambling to come up with zoning systems for pot companies after voters approved legalization of the drug for both medical and recreational uses last year. Seattle's proposed zoning scheme would keep the growing and selling out of historic, tourist and residential areas. Urban planners in Spokane recently mapped out a potential zoning system that would concentrate much of the marijuana business in the city's northeast quadrant.

Salkin says legalized marijuana is often treated as a "locally unwanted land use," like strip clubs, tattoo and piercing parlors or pay-day check cashing mills.

For McDuffie, who moved to limit cultivation permits in Ward 5 after neighborhood representatives strongly opposed the influx of growers, it was important to ensure that grow houses are "equitably distributed across the city’s wards." While he is a "strong supporter" of the medical marijuana program, the councilmember acknowledged that some of his constituents are not completely sold on the idea. "I have heard from residents who are concerned about the impact on neighborhoods and a potential chilling effect on community-serving amenities locating near these facilities," McDuffie said.

Meanwhile, Morgan says that Capital City Care — which expects to open its dispensary on a busy stretch of North Capitol Street near Union Station to licensed customers in the coming weeks — intends to run a "quiet and discreet" grow facility. Travel to the company's cultivation outpost, an aging, nondescript warehouse, and you'll be hard pressed to find many signs of life, let alone business markings or even the faintest whiff of the work going on inside. The two other approved growers who have passed all the hurdles to begin actually putting plants in the ground also seem happy to do so incognito.

"The cultivation center is simply not a public business," Morgan says. "It is a licensed facility to produce medicine exclusively for a small number of authorized dispensaries."

"We don't expect visitors."

Top image: Nikita Starichenko /Shutterstock.com

Chris Opfer is a writer and attorney in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice and Pacific Standard, among other publications. All posts »

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