Patient advocates worked with Council member Yvette Alexander to improve lagging enrollment in the program

Washington, D.C. -- District of Columbia Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) introduced legislation yesterday that would lift restrictions on physicians that currently prevent them from recommending medical marijuana to any patient who might benefit from it. If signed into law, the "Medical Marijuana Expansion Amendment Act of 2014" will remove the current set of medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana use, and replace it with language that gives physicians the discretion to determine which patients should qualify. "The recommendation for medical marijuana is between a doctor and their patient not government," said Council member Alexander in a statement issued earlier this week.

"Patients who use marijuana to treat medical conditions which are omitted from the District government's list of approved conditions will no longer be forced to live as criminals," said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which has been working locally to fix the program since its inception. "The current law is so restrictive that very few patients qualify, and physicians are prevented from recommending medical marijuana to patients who would qualify under any other program in the country."

The new bill to remove the restrictive list of qualifying conditions was unanimously co-sponsored by the District Council. The District's current medical marijuana law only recognizes four qualifying conditions -- cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and severe muscle spasms such as multiple sclerosis -- making it the most limited set of qualifying conditions of any medical marijuana program in the country.

Today, ten months after the first patient received their District medical marijuana identification card, fewer than 250 patients have been able to enroll in the program. In November 2010, the District estimated that at least 800 patients would qualify in the first year, but advocates say that the restrictive conditions list is largely responsible for the poor enrollment. Despite calls for change, the District Council had been reluctant to amend the program until it had been further implemented.

In 2013 and again earlier this year, ASA testified at Department of Health oversight hearings and urged the Council to develop guidelines that rely on a physician's medical opinion rather than the current restrictive and arbitrary list of qualifying conditions. Following the most recent hearing, Council member Alexander and Council member David Grosso began to work on legislation to address the problem.

"This legislation cannot be passed soon enough," said District resident and father Ken Archer. "My son Martin suffers from ten seizures per day, and none of the prescribed medicine works effectively to prevent them," continued Archer. "We're so desperate, we're ready to move to California in order to find treatment for my son, but the passage of this bill would mean that we could stay in the District and treat him here, a much preferable option."

The introduction of legislation yesterday follows another clean-up bill introduced by Council member Grosso in February to allow licensed medical marijuana cultivators in the District to produce more medicine in order to meet the demand. Hearings on both pieces of legislation will likely not occur until May or June of this year.

"Today's news is a sign that the District is serious about fixing its medical marijuana program," said John Leyden, another parent whose child is living with a severe seizure disorder. "When this law passes, my son will have the same right as anyone else to seek treatment using medical marijuana," continued Leyden. "That's all we've been asking for."

Further information:
Legislation introduced yesterday in the District of Columbia

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