By Jana Curry
The 15-year struggle to legalize medical marijuana in the District ended on July 29th, 2013. On that Monday evening, a 51-year-old HIV-positive Northwest resident purchased about a half-ounce of cannabis from the Capital City Care dispensary, becoming the first District resident to legally purchase medical marijuana under the long-awaited city program.
The patient, whose middle name is Alonzo, declined to be identified further for professional reasons. He entered a North Capitol Street row house and emerged 90 minutes later with slightly less than a half-ounce of street-legal, high-grade, DC-grown cannabis. Alonzo became a part of history and part of an ongoing political debate about marijuana laws in America.
The 2,000- square-foot row house, painted bright blue with unobstructed views of the US Capitol, is located at 1334 North Capitol St. The row house has made a bolder statement by becoming a symbol for the District’s leap into the growth and sale of medical marijuana.
“You can look out and see the dome of the Capitol,” said David A. Guard, the general manager of the Capital City Care dispensary. “We want to set a precedent and want the country to see what medical marijuana can and should be.”
As early as February, some District residents have been able to enter the row house by showing proper identification to a security officer. Once entering, residents will be escorted to a brightly lighted office with brick walls and bamboo flooring. Patients will have their prescriptions for marijuana verified by a receptionist. Then patients can consult an iPad in the office’s waiting area to review the six strains of high-quality cannabis. When they are called, patients will walk past a security guard in a glass-enclosed room scanning video from security cameras.
At another counter in the rear of the office, patients will then purchase up to two ounces of medical marijuana to help relieve pain, nausea, or muscle spasms. Patients will be able to buy water pipes, vaporizers or cigar pipes to inhale the drug in an adjoining showroom.
Shortly before 6 p.m. on that Monday, Alonzo walked into the high-security sales room of the Capital City Care dispensary, with two store employees to consummate the city’s first legal marijuana deal in at least 75 years. He purchased three strains of cannabis: Jack Herer, Dream and Master Kush.
“It’s a beautiful natural product that is from rain, sun and soil,” Alonzo said, wearing a dark T-shirt with a green logo of a cannabis leaf over a medical cross. “Mother Nature doesn’t make mistakes.”
Alonzo, who is HIV-positive, said he had been following the rollout of the medical marijuana program since the beginning of the year. The combination of antiviral drugs he takes to manage his infection, Alonzo said, causes him frequent insomnia and occasional difficulty in swallowing and digesting.
Marijuana, he said, was not initially his preferred therapy. “Like many people, I certainly had my fair share in college, but then I really left it alone for a long time,” he said. A mid-1990s trip to Amsterdam with his former partner, who had a more advanced HIV infection, demonstrated how cannabis could help address the virus’s symptoms and the side effects of the drugs used to treat them.
In March, Alonzo approached his doctor about seeking a marijuana recommendation. “He asked why, and I outlined my challenges,” he said. “I really don’t want to have a prescription drug dependency, and they weren’t working for the insomnia. He was agreeable to it. And then the long wait.” To secure his first dose, Alonzo had to visit his doctor. His doctor then had to request recommendation forms from the health department, which then processed the forms and issued him a patient card.
Although the city’s medical marijuana program has started, it remains a slow start. D.C. Health Department spokeswoman Najma Roberts said that as of Monday, only nine patients have obtained a city-issued medical marijuana card. About 20 doctors, she said, have requested forms from the city allowing them to recommend cannabis to their patients.
Capital City Care, the first of three planned District dispensaries to secure an operating license, offers four strains of medical cannabis grown by Northeast-based Holistic Remedies. More varieties will be offered once two other cultivation centers produce their first salable harvest, said Scott Morgan, a spokesman for Capital City Care.
Morgan said he was not aware of any health insurers willing to cover medical marijuana purchases. The prices, he said, reflect the highly regulated nature of the District’s system and the firm’s investment in its dispensary and growing operations. But did Alonzo get a good deal on his marijuana?
For his sampling of the Jack Herer, Blue Dream, and Master Kush strains, Alonzo paid about $250 for almost a half-ounce. Capital City Care currently offers four strains for between $380 and $440 per ounce, plus 6 percent city sales tax. It costs more by weight to purchase smaller amounts, but discounts are available for seniors, veterans and patients who are certified as low-income by the city.
People have seemed somewhat surprised at those prices, and have raised the question of whether potential patients will consider it worth the time and hassle to get a D.C. medical marijuana card for the right to pay sky-high cannabis prices. But then again, these are people who are mostly unfamiliar with the street price of marijuana in the District. There are indications that Capital City Care’s prices are competitive with street prices.
PriceOfWeed.com, a crowd sourced marijuana price directory, pegs the current average price of high-quality marijuana in the District at $368 per ounce. An anonymous resident of the District, who is familiar with these matters, said the dispensary’s prices are “not crazy” for quality marijuana, with $60 for an eighth-ounce being “pretty standard” on the street. Eighths of Capital City Care’s current strains range from $58 to $70.
The Washington Post caught up with Alonzo after two days of use. He said he is “definitely pleased… It’s been very good.” “I figured out how to use my vaporizer and had a nice walk with my dog last night… I slept beautifully.” In a brief mid-medication interview, his description was more vivid: “It’s like someone’s inside me doing a gentle massage outward.”
Alonzo said Capital City Care’s product did seem pricier than street marijuana, but while he says he’d “like to see something more affordable,” the legal and regulated nature of the endeavor was worth extra: “You don’t really know exactly what you’re getting on the street, and there’s also the risk of people taking your money and not giving you anything, period.”
David Guard, left, verifies the identity of a man before allowing him to buy medical marijuana. Guard is the general manager of Capital City Care.
“Alonzo” enters Capital City Care becoming the first person to legally purchase medical marijuana in Washington, D.C.
Some of the glass pipes or sale at Capital City Care