Washington D.C.’s seven medical marijuana dispensaries can now deliver to patients and offer curbside and at-the-door pickup, according to an emergency rule from the D.C. Department of Health that went into effect today.COVID-19 Medical Marijuana Emergency Rulemaking
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Norbert Pickett, owner of Deanwood dispensary Cannabliss. “It’s good that we’re doing this now, but it should have been done a long time ago.”
D.C.’s medical marijuana program, which has been in operation since 2013 and currently has 6,309 registered patients, normally requires people to visit dispensaries in person to purchase marijuana, with very few exceptions. While many dispensaries, including Pickett’s, have seen a huge boost in sales since the coronavirus pandemic hit the region, owners raised concerns about the fact that many of their patients are ill or immunocompromised, and fear exposing themselves to COVID-19.
Dispensary owners called on D.C. Health to modify the medical marijuana program (medical marijuana dispensaries are considered essential businesses under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s March 24 order closing all nonessential establishments) and the city has now made some changes accordingly.
“This patient-centric, emergency rulemaking is necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of District residents, and is similar to what other states are putting in place to continue access to medical marijuana,” the city said in a press release.
The new rule allows the city’s dispensaries to deliver or provide pickup to D.C. patients who have a medical card issued by D.C. Health. Dispensaries can only use one car for these deliveries, and the vehicle must be registered with the health department, have a functioning GPS, and not be adorned with decorations, images, or advertisements associated with marijuana. Deliveries must occur between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., and the delivery person must be a registered employee of the dispensary.
Pickett says the limitation on one car will complicate logistics—they either have to acquire a company car or use one employee’s car, who then may have to extend their hours, depending on demand. Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, co-owner of Takoma Wellness Center, says that D.C. Health told dispensary owners in a phone call that the agency would look at allowing more than one car to perform deliveries, but wanted to start with one car per dispensary.
“Because it’s all new, we don’t know what to expect or what demand will be,” says Kahn. He says his dispensary is working quickly to implement these changes.
Cannabliss is ready for curbside and at-the-door delivery (at-the-door refers to the door of the dispensary), and has already transitioned its website to accommodate deliveries, according to Pickett. “We should be up and running with home delivery probably within the next 48 hours,” he says, noting that he’s already submitted a car for registration and “we can move as quickly as the Department of Health moves.”
He already began gauging interest in delivery among his customers, and says “they were extremely excited,” even after learning about a delivery surcharge.
This isn’t the first time that D.C. Health has made a change to the medical marijuana program due to the health crisis. In late March, the agency extended telemedicine to medical marijuana prescriptions for the first time, a shift that owners say they’ve sought since before the pandemic.
But delivery has long been at the top of dispensary owners’ wish lists because D.C.’s dispensaries face competition from the city’s large unlicensed market. D.C. legalized recreational marijuana via ballot initiative in 2014, but Congress has stymied the city from regulating that market. Instead, a slew of companies operate via the so-called “gifting loophole” (under D.C. law, people can give away up to 1 ounce of marijuana to anyone over 21), selling goods and then giving away marijuana products alongside them, often through delivery.
“Because the Department of Health is slow to act and slow to be able to meet patients’ needs, people who go around Department of Health regulations are able to serve people better than we are, and what a shame is that,” Kahn told DCist at the end of March.
Now, Kahn says that the ability to deliver “makes us more competitive, and that’s something we’ve said all along.”
Still, there’s more changes that dispensary owners would like to see D.C. Health make to the medical marijuana program.
Pickett wants the program to offer same-day access, meaning that after a doctor makes a recommendation, patients wouldn’t have to wait for a medical card to arrive in the mail before they can go to the dispensary and fill their prescription. “If you are in pain and you see a doctor and he gives you a prescription for oxycontin, you don’t have to wait for a card to come in the mail to get pain medication,” he says.
D.C. Health says that patients now receive an approval within 2-3 days once they’ve submitted all their documentation, and receive a card via email.
Pickett also would like D.C. to implement self-certification, in which patients can prescribe medical marijuana for themselves, especially now that D.C. allows prescriptions for any debilitating condition.
Kahn is pushing for an increase in the amount of marijuana that patients can obtain each month (which currently stands at 4 ounces) as well as the cessation of medical marijuana cards expiring during the public health emergency. D.C. Health has signaled that it will not do so, though it has prevented employee registrations from expiring during the crisis.
“The health provider must still be a part of the determination as to whether the patient still needs to receive this medication,” D.C. Health told DCist in an emailed statement, maintaining that this shouldn’t be a burden to patients because “we have streamlined our process, we are approving applications expediently, we have allowed telemedicine so patients can visit their doctor from home, and we are ensuring that the patients are emailed a card right away.”
As it currently stands, D.C.’s medical marijuana dispensaries’ ability to deliver and provide pickup will end either August 12 or 45 days after the end of the public health emergency, whichever comes first.
But Pickett and Kahn are both optimistic that this trial run might become a permanent feature of the program.
Pickett says that he “would like to see this solidify in the future so we can give disabled patients a lot easier access to medication.”
Kahn agrees: “We would hope at the end of the period we would be able to demonstrate to them that we met a need safely and efficiently.”