"There's a whole host of risks associated with investing and opening up shop here," said Jason Klein, a D.C. attorney who represents medical marijuana operators. "These entrepreneurs see themselves as doing yeoman's work, putting themselves in personal risk ... to get medicine to the sick people who deserve it."
D.C. officials on Friday are set to announce those eligible to apply for permits to grow and sell medical marijuana to dispensaries under the district's 2010 law. Applicants must sign a statement saying they understand a license doesn't authorize them to break federal law.
"They do so at their own peril because I can't imagine that the federal government is going to allow marijuana selling for any purpose right in their backyard," said Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser to the president's drug czar and a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Substance Abuse Solutions.
"Whether it's D.C. or all the way out in California, the government's been pretty clear that medical marijuana doesn't pass the giggle test."
Sabet said the idea of dispensaries trying to be passed off as a medical establishment is a joke, adding that the grow store will be the first in a series events where people are going to try to "make big money off an illegal drug."
The national medical marijuana market was estimated to be worth $1.7 billion in 2011 and is projected to reach $8.9 billion within five years, according to an economic analysis done for the American Cannabis Research Institute. The study also says that nearly 25 million Americans are potentially eligible to use medical marijuana based on current state laws.
"There's great potential for the industry across the country," said Steve Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, a D.C.-based trade group representing marijuana-related businesses. He said support for the businesses has emerged in states like California, Colorado and Washington state. "They are showing that just like any other industry, there's a demand for a product and these businesses are sprouting up to address the need."
The issue of marijuana in the nation's capital isn't new. A public referendum to legalize medical marijuana overwhelmingly passed in the late 1990s but Congress blocked it from taking effect for years. Allowing the city's latest move on medical marijuana use could also indicate an attitude shift on a federal level.
"The political winds on a federal level really affect our ability to get things done on a local level," said Brendan Williams-Kief, spokesman for D.C. councilmember David A. Catania, who co-sponsored the medical marijuana legislation. "When the (legislation) was passed, it happened at a time when there was a Congress that was less-inclined to exert their will on the District. ... But they're always up there on the Hill looking down."
Klein believes that, despite being next door to Congress, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Justice, the D.C. medical marijuana program will avoid the ire of the federal government because it was crafted to tightly control the industry.
"It's the sort of thing the feds will probably just look the other way elsewhere, but given the fact that it's right under their noses, is going to really be unique conundrum," Klein said. "I'm really looking forward to getting a couple of Congresspeople in a cab and caravaning them over to a dispensary ... so that they can see that this is not the danger that they imagine it might be."
For Alex Wong, the franchisee of the D.C. weGrow store, his involvement in the industry is both personal and professional. The mid-40s entrepreneur was drawn to the business after seeing the firsthand effects of his mother's colon cancer and learning that medical marijuana might have made her more comfortable during treatment.
"It is a viable medicine," said the. "All I can do is use my small business expertise to lend a hand in this movement."
Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, issued a statement saying science and research — not politics — should drive the approval process for medicine, and to date the "smoked form of marijuana has not met the modern standard" established by the Food and Drug Administration.
"Chronically ill and suffering patients deserve access to modern medicine that is proven to be effective and safe," Lemaitre said. "We ardently support continued research into medical uses for the components of marijuana and will continue to do so."
Mann, however, says medical marijuana cultivation and distribution is going to happen with or without federal government approval.
"Regardless of how rigorously they want to enforce intervention, it's not going to stop the industry," Mann said.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.
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