Marijuana Movement Plants Flag on Capitol Hill

Inside Look at New Medical Marijuana Dispensary to Open in D.C.

ByABC News
May 13, 2013, 7:30 AM

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2013 — -- The movement to legalize marijuana has arrived at Congress' back door.

Later this month the first medical cannabis dispensaries are expected to open in the nation's capital, including one just eight blocks from the Capitol dome.

The milestone is lifting the spirits of pot enthusiasts who believe a safe and profitable marijuana micro-industry in D.C. could help nudge along efforts to decriminalize the drug nationwide.

ABC News recently toured the Metropolitan Wellness Center, one of the district's three soon-to-open shops, located on Capitol Hill.

While pot products have yet to hit shelves – the shop is still awaiting a license from the district – general manager Vanessa West said they will soon offer multiple varieties of cannabis, paraphernalia and a mix of pot-infused products, including brownies, cookies and drinks.

West, a veteran operator of dispensaries in California who admits she "smoked a little grass in college," said the sleek, modern set-up of her "product selection and payment room" underscores a serious focus on patients and treating their pain.

"When we find out what a patient's symptoms are, we can make a recommendation about what the best strain is for them and what the best possible route for ingesting that strain is," she said.

"Forget about the recreational part for a second," she says to skeptics. "Listen to how cannabis has changed patients' lives for the better."

Only employees and patients registered with the District of Columbia Department of Health will be allowed inside the dispensary once weed sales officially commence. The shop will effectively go on lockdown, protected by a high-tech security system of a dozen cameras and motion sensors keeping watch.

"This is sort of a delicate business," West said. "It's like a bank or a high end jewelry store. We want to protect the product and the people that are inside this building."

Under district law, no one is allowed to consume pot on the premises, West said. Approved users are required to head directly home after making their purchases.

The rules for obtaining legal access to the drug are equally stringent. A prospective patient must be a district resident with one of the few qualifying diseases, such as AIDS, glaucoma or multiple sclerosis. A doctor must formally recommend the drug, and that recommendation must be certified by the Department of Health. Each patient must also submit an application and pay a license fee.

"It's a pretty difficult process, but it sort of needs to be," said West. "You don't want to create a free for all."

The dispensaries in D.C. will remain illegal under federal law, which still bans the cultivation and sale of marijuana as a dangerous and addictive "Schedule I" drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Officially, marijuana is classified has having "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S."

The headquarters for the Justice Department, the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal law, is located just four miles from the Metropolitan Wellness Center.

West says she's not worried about a raid.

"History has shown that if you are a dispensary operating in a state that is transparent and heavily regulated, the federal government is not interested in intervening," she said.