Pols, meet pot.

Washington, D.C. approved medical marijuana three years ago, but only now are dispensaries starting to open up shop in the city. Three are expected to open their doors in May, including one within walking distance of Congress and the U.S. Capitol.

Capital City Care was the first of the three dispensaries to receive a license and is expected to open first. The other two, Metropolitan Wellness Center and Takoma Wellness Center, are expected to start serving patients soon after.

Capital City Care is located in the Near Northeast neighborhood north of Capitol. Metropolitan Wellness Center is located on Capitol Hill, just eight blocks from the Capitol dome. And Takoma Wellness Center is located in the Takoma neighborhood in northern Washington.

Together, the three dispensaries will serve the needs of patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and HIV/AIDS. Medical marijuana in Washington will also be used to treat patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The list of conditions may expand over time, but for now it’s very limited.

The ordinance that allows medical marijuana in the capital was approved by the district Council in 2010. It allows for only eight dispensaries in the city with tight regulations and a stringent licensing process. Patients cannot grow pot on their own, and dispensaries are limited to 95 plants a piece. Patients can buy no more than two ounces per month.

The restrictions are tight in large part because the dispensaries are opening in the shadow of the federal government, which still considers all pot illegal. Capital City Care is located down the street from the Department of Justice and the FBI, notorious for busting dispensaries in California.

It remains to be seen how the Obama administration will approach dispensaries in its backyard. As a general matter, Obama has said he will take a hands-off approach to marijuana that is legal at the state or local level – unless his administration believes laws are being flouted, as many believe is the case in California. Hence the tight rules and enforcement in Washington.

That may make things difficult for patients, however, and may not do much to reduce the black market. The cost of a quarter ounce of medical marijuana in Washington is expected to be between $100 and $120, the going rate for illegal pot in much of the country.

That may change as more dispensaries open and more conditions are covered, but no one knows for sure. If medical marijuana remains too difficult and too expensive for needy patients to obtain, the black market may continue to thrive in the nation’s capital – and so may the other crimes that attend it.

All eyes will be on Washington to determine where the future of medical marijuana and federal enforcement lie. If Capital City Care and other dispensaries are able to function openly and serve an expanding base of patients, things may look bright. If not, there may be more trouble ahead for everyone. For now, though, medical marijuana is moving forward in the capital.

About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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