Weeding out the pain

Jeffrey Kahn’s father-in-law spent decades searching for relief from his multiple sclerosis. In the 1960s and 70s, he traveled the globe looking for a cure for the painful disorder. “[He] tried every kind of pharmaceutical you could imagine,” Kahn says. “Drugs, snake venom, you name [it] and he tried it.”

Eventually, a doctor recommended marijuana. It was illegal, but Kahn’s father-in-law used it anyway. And, unlike all the other medicines and drugs, he felt that marijuana made a difference. “So we knew for decades that it was something that helped at least one person with multiple sclerosis,” Kahn says.

That meant that its benefits were already on his radar when Washington, D.C. legalized medical marijuana in 2010. Kahn and his wife took a leap and founded the Takoma Wellness Center, a medical cannabis dispensary.

They started out with only three patients. In the years since, their clientele has grown to about 200 people a day as the medical cannabis industry expanded into a multibillion-dollar coast-to-coast market.

An increasing number of states are legalizing medical cannabis, though it remains illegal at the federal level. D.C. followed the lead of several states with its 2010 marijuana legislation. Maryland’s program came slightly later: Legalization began in 2013, and it took four more years to get the dispensaries up and running.

How dispensaries are regarded in the D.C. community continues to change, according to Kahn. “[When we started], people still weren't sure what this was all about and what kind of people would be involved,” he says.

Locals brought up plenty of concerns about the Takoma Wellness Center. “In the beginning, there was a lot of opposition,” Kahn acknowledges. “But now that we've been open almost seven years, we're just a part of the community.”

And yet, though they may be accepted in the D.C. area, dispensaries remain a contested issue in the U.S. as a whole. Kahn is still not allowed to serve people from certain states, including just over the border in Virginia, something with which he has struggled.

In the beginning, there was a lot of opposition... But now that we've been open almost seven years, we're just a part of the community.
        Jeffrey Kahn

“It's medicine by zip code,” he says. “We would hear from the sickest people, with the saddest stories, that we knew our medicine could help… and we couldn't help them.”

Federally, marijuana is still considered to be a Schedule I substance, which the Drug Enforcement Administration defines as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” No attempts to change its status, either at the DEA or through Congress, have succeeded.

There are, however, other cannabidiol (CBD) products that recently became federally legal. These products come from hemp, which is in the same family as the marijuana plant. The biggest difference between the two is the amount of THC, the active component in marijuana. Hemp-derived CBD products contain less than 0.3% THC, meaning that they, unlike marijuana products, do not produce a high.

Marc Nelson saw firsthand the effects of CBD when he started using it after a second knee surgery. Hoping to avoid opioids, Nelson signed up for a medical marijuana card. But because the Maryland program was brand-new at the time, no marijuana was available. Nelson turned to CBD.

“[It] worked really well in terms of just general comfort, in terms of anti-inflammation… And that sort of sold me on the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant,” Nelson says.

The surgery piqued his interest. “I just wanted to know why, ended up learning a little more about it, ended up getting a job at a medicinal dispensary,” he says. He worked at the Harvest House of Cannabis dispensary for a few months before moving to CBD Wellness in Rockville, where he is now a manager.

At CBD Wellness, Nelson sells the federally-legal CBD products that he used after his surgery. He faces very different regulations at CBD Wellness than he did at Harvest, where he dealt with stringent state requirements. Dispensaries like Harvest are regulated by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, and all of their customers must have physician-approved medical marijuana cards. In contrast, CBD stores see very little government intervention.

That, in Nelson’s mind, is a safety problem. “[CBD is] just not regulated at this point,” Nelson says. “Legislation has not caught up to reality in terms of what we need to do to make sure that general CBD products on the market are safe.”

But Nelson believes policy will improve. “It's definitely something that [the FDA is] looking into regulation-wise,” he says, pointing to recently released guidelines for some hemp products.

Kahn, the D.C. dispensary owner, agrees that the industry is shifting. He has been advocating for change since he started: for the removal of the cap on the number of plants cultivators can grow, for the ability to serve out-of-state patients, for more relaxed requirements on prescribing marijuana. “It’s a long, hard process to change legislation,” he acknowledges, but he has been fighting for seven years. He expects to keep on doing so.

This, he says, is “the beginning chapter of a program and a story that's still got a ways to go.”

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