Accessing the Medical Cannabis Markets in DC and Virginia Just Got a Little Easier

Medical Cannabis in the DMV

Continuing this year’s trend of increased access to legal cannabis in the Maryland, DC and Virginia area that started with Maryland adding legalization to the ballot in November, DC and Virginia recently relaxed the requirements for accessing their licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, which should result in increased customers and sales.

Washington, DC

In Washington, DC, the City Council unanimously passed and the Mayor signed an emergency bill that removes the longstanding requirement that anyone looking to get medical cannabis first get a doctor’s recommendation. Instead, residents over the age of 21 are only required to “self-certify” that they intend to use the cannabis for medicinal uses when they register for a patient card. The card then allows them access to any of the city’s seven, licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. Earlier this year a similar law was enacted that allowed residents over the age of 65 to self-certify. Proponents of the bill say it aims to ease access to medical cannabis for potential patients, some of whom may face challenges in finding a doctor who will provide a recommendation for medical cannabis (there are only 620 registered practitioners in DC) or may not have the time, insurance coverage, or money to manage a visit to a doctor.

According to a declaration from the bill’s sponsors accompanying the emergency bill, the legislation is also intended to boost DC’s licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, which face growing competition from the unregulated gray market or “gifting shops,” which offer cannabis as a “gift” accompanying the purchase of digital art, stickers, clothing, food, or other items. Gifting shops arose as a way around restrictions imposed by Congress that prevent DC from regulating the sale of recreational cannabis despite a voter-approved law in DC that legalized the possession of cannabis for all adults over the age of 21. The Congressional restrictions have  created a bizarre situation in which DC residents may legally possess cannabis but only adults with a medical card may legally purchase it.

According to the declaration, “lower barriers to access in the gray market” have led a significant number of medical cannabis patients to shift from purchasing at licensed medical dispensaries to purchasing at gifting shops. The declaration estimates that the gray market in DC generates $600 million in sales annually and has created “a significant risk to the long-term viability” of DC’s licensed medical cannabis dispensaries.

In April, the City Council had previously considered the issue of self-certification for people over the age of 21, but at that time, the proposal was part of a broader bill that would have ramped up civil enforcement on gifting shops. After the increased enforcement provisions generated significant pushback from the supporters of the gifting shops, the bill was narrowly voted down. The City Council Chair has said that he will continue to pursue new legislation to crack down on the gifting shops including through the imposition of significant civil fines. The Chair has said that he hopes the licensed medical cannabis dispensers will be the backbone of a legal recreational market if the Congressional restrictions are ever lifted.

Virginia

In Virginia, a new law went into effect that eliminated the requirement that patients register with the Board of Pharmacy after receiving a written certification from a registered practitioner, instead once a patient has the written certification, they may immediately shop at the state’s four medical cannabis dispensaries. Patients must still see a registered practitioner to obtain the certification and patients who would like to receive a physical card will still have the option to request one by registering with the Board of Pharmacy. The Board of Pharmacy registration process had created significant delays and a backlog of pending applications, with some estimating that the process was taking upwards of 5 to 6 months. As of July 1, there are currently over 50,000 program registrants in Virginia and earlier this year the Board of Pharmacy disclosed that there were an estimated 8,000 applicants still awaiting approval.

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