The Pot Industry's Most Politically Important Dispensary

In the eyes of the federal government, there is no such thing as "medical marijuana." But there's a dispensary just blocks from the Capitol.


At a dispensary in California (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Earlier this week, Reps. Jared Polis and Earl Blumenauer visited a marijuana dispensary.

They were just blocks away from their congressional offices, and yet within months, certain D.C. residents will be able to come here to legally choose from more than a dozen strains of medical marijuana, from Master Kush to Blue Dream. The walls will be packed with vaporizers, water pipes, and pre-rolled joints. There will be THC lollipops, baked goods, and cookbooks. But for now, all the congressmen could see was an empty display case and a metal scale.

Until the Metropolitan Wellness Center opens -- supposedly within the next couple months -- the congressmen will have to use their imaginations.

"My campaign headquarters last summer we shared [a building] with a dispensary," Polis told Blumenauer in front of a half dozen Hill staffers, marijuana advocates, and center employees gathered in the almost completely-barren shop room. "You could see the sign, it was like: 'Marijuana, Jared Polis.' Marijuana outperformed me by 10 points, so it was a great association for me."

Polis of Colorado and Blumenauer of Oregon -- two lawmakers fighting to end the federal prohibition of pot -- hadn't come to this unmarked shop above the Eastern Market Popeye's to buy product. They had come to this dispensary because just blocks away from the Capitol, it may soon become one of the most politically important marijuana distribution centers in the country.

"I've talked to people all over the country about marijuana," said Corey Barnette, a principal at District Growers, the cultivation facility that will service the center. "Everyone is highly focused on what happens in Washington, D.C. We are a city on top of the feds, and with Congress right here. If we can make it work, it can work anywhere."

Last year, Polis's home state of Colorado, along with the state of Washington, became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Places around the country have been loosening their laws, and just this week Maryland voted to decriminalize small amounts of weed.

But, regardless of what individual states do, the use or cultivation of marijuana remains a federal crime under the Controlled Substance Act. This means that even if state law enforcement allows for use of the drug, federal officials do not. In the eyes of the federal government, there is no such thing as "medical marijuana."

This is where Polis and Blumenauer come in. The duo has dropped a series of bills to end the federal prohibition on the drug, impose federal tax on sale of legal pot, and protect the rights of patients using medical marijuana. At this point, especially in a Republican-run House of Representatives, these bills have an upward climb toward becoming law. But the way things have been shifting, that could change rapidly.

In this sense, the congressmen and the dispensary can help each other out. District pot sellers need the protection of a federal law, and the congressmen could use a place to show to their skeptical colleagues what it really looks like and its impact on a community.

While Congress may be filled with skeptics, marijuana has surged in popularity around the country. In the 1980s, only about 30 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be legal. By 2011, half of Americans thought it should be legalized. Today, 70 percent of Americans think doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to alleviate pain and suffering. Advocates hope that a dispensary right in the nation's capital could be a watershed moment in the marijuana-reform movement.

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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