WASHINGTON -- As she prepares to open the Metropolitan Wellness Center above a Popeyes chicken restaurant a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, general manager Vanessa West isn’t worried that her medical marijuana shop will get raided.
West knows she’ll be selling a drug that’s illegal under federal law, even though the District of Columbia city council has approved sales for medical use, but she expects the city to have a tightly run system.
“I was explaining it to a toddler a few weeks ago. It’s like if you’re in grade school and they say it’s OK to chew gum inside the classroom but it’s not in the hallway,” West said. “It just makes no sense.”
Operating in the shadow of Congress, the center – expected to open later this month – will mark one of the boldest moves yet for the nation’s marijuana movement, which is in full bloom this spring. It will be one of three that are expected to be operating soon in the district.
In Illinois, legislators just passed a law legalizing medical marijuana, though it has yet to be signed by the governor. In New Hampshire, the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved medical marijuana bills, sending the issue to a conference committee. In Vermont, lawmakers voted to decriminalize pot, and the governor plans to sign the measure Thursday. In Colorado, the governor made history last week by signing bills to make his state the first to create a system to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states, along with the District of Columbia. Two – Colorado and Washington state – have signed off on plans to allow recreational sales. Critics fear that more will follow.
“Medical marijuana has been a Trojan horse, really, for decriminalization and legalization. It’s the slippery slope toward legalization,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman who’s the chairman of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a national group that opposes legalization.
Kennedy said he regretted ever supporting medical marijuana and that he feared it would lead to more drug abuse among children.
“More kids smoke marijuana than smoke tobacco,” he said. “And the perception is, ‘Well, it’s medical, it must be fine.’ . . . What you end up doing is sending a very dangerous message.”
Opponents of medical marijuana hope to ramp up the anti-legalization message, saying they need to do a better job of reaching state legislators.
“It’s a reflection of the one-sidedness that they’re hearing on this,” said Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor and the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, who teamed up with Kennedy to create Project SAM.
Sabet said the dispensary on Capitol Hill was making itself a target for legal action. But he predicted that the Obama administration will take a wait-and-see attitude to assess whether the dispensary fizzles out or begins growing.
“If they get more brazen, I can’t imagine there won’t be any action against them,” Sabet said.
Stuart Taylor, who studied the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Democratic-leaning research center in Washington, said allowing the dispensary would be “totally inconsistent with federal law.”