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Mixed Reactions to Medical Marijuana Proposal

If an aspiring entrepreneur gets his way, a two-story walk-up on Barracks Row, already home to a tattoo parlor and a Popeyes franchise, could also be the site of another potentially lucrative enterprise: a medical marijuana dispensary.

Mike Cuthriell is one of 17 applicants vying for permits to run such dispensaries. If he makes it past the first round of cuts at the beginning of March, he’ll be one step closer to being among the five picked in May to open for business.

Capitol Hill will also be one step closer to having a new neighbor under the name Metropolitan Wellness Center, but the community has not spoken with a clear voice on whether it would welcome the business’s arrival.

“People have questions and concerns, but they are ultimately supportive,” said Ivan Frishberg, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for Barracks Row.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are coming to D.C. after more than a decade of controversy.

Voters approved a ballot initiative green-lighting such a program in 1998, with almost 70 percent in favor. Congress then blocked the program from being implemented for the next 10 years, using riders in appropriations bills.

Congress lifted the ban in 2009, setting the stage for a long and involved application process that will end this spring. 

A Businessman First

Cuthriell said he first became interested in providing access to medical marijuana when a close friend became sick with cancer. 

That inspired Cuthriell, a veteran business consultant, to explore options for getting the drug, and along the way he learned that D.C. would soon be launching a medical marijuana program.

“Part of it was the interest in supporting the patient community that used it,” Cuthriell said of his decision to apply to run a dispensary. 

“The other part of it seemed like an interesting opportunity to start a business. It’s not where I necessarily thought I’d be at this point in my life, but at the same time I felt like I had a lot of experience and savvy and I’d be able to set up a good organization.”

Applicants are required to identify the site of their proposed dispensaries, but they are not guaranteed a license until the end of the application process. This uncertainty makes it tricky to nail down a lease without risking the loss of a significant sum of money if things don’t go as planned.

Cuthriell was able to obtain a “holding lease” on his space along Eighth Street Southeast.

He looked at a handful of other properties before the Barracks Row location came through, and he’s pleased with the way things worked out.

“I think it would be a privilege to be settled in this area,” Cuthriell said. “I think there are a lot of opportunities to contribute to the growth and advancement of this area, and I know the community is very passionate about making this a great place to live and work.”

Barracks Row has, indeed, grown and blossomed over the past decade. The area became economically depressed following the riots surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, but local merchants began to revive the area in the mid-1990s.

Today, Barracks Row is home to lively restaurants and shops, and Barracks Row Main Street presides over its business community.

Mixed Reaction

The D.C. Department of Health is responsible for whittling down the applicant pool based on a point system, of which community feedback accounts for only a small percentage.

Cuthriell is hoping to win over key community players, though, knowing that every point counts. He has courted his neighbors and local officials and even invited a police sergeant over for a walk-through of the proposed space.

“As for business types, I have to say Mike has been one of the most professional, thoughtful, detail-oriented business owners I’ve had the experience of working with so far,” Frishberg said.

Others share Frishberg’s impression, but even those who like Cuthriell and generally support his mission are uneasy about having such a business come to their neighborhood.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘I don’t have a problem with it in the realm of the city, but not here,’” said Martin Smith, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street.

Smith said he has also heard people say they worry about security. 

Cuthriell said that, in compliance with the law, the dispensary would be heavily guarded and no one without a prescription and a license to receive medical marijuana would be admitted. Outdoor security, with potential thieves loitering outside the Metropolitan Wellness Center waiting for customers to exit, is another question.

Frishberg suggested that it might be better to have the dispensary located in a building with many different offices, so people leaving the clinic would be less conspicuous to those with nefarious intentions.

In general, Smith said, the fact that the city is going through this for the first time is what’s causing people to be cautious.

“One of the biggest concerns is the number of unknowns,” he said. “Without other dispensaries in other neighborhoods, it’s difficult to identify what problems are likely to arise and what fears are real.”

Other neighbors operating businesses in the area appeared generally unfazed by the concept.

“There’s a liquor store down the block and nobody says anything about that,” said one local business owner who asked not to be identified. “There are tons of police around. And the Secret Service. I’m not concerned about safety.”

Miguel Ortega, the manager on duty early one Friday morning at OXXO Care Cleaners next door, said he hadn’t heard about the proposed dispensary but it sounded like a fine idea to him.

“If it’s run properly, why not?” he said. 

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