The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave final approval to a new law that would allow the city to license and open up to eight medical marijuana dispensaries.
Those dispensaries would be tightly controlled in terms of growing, packaging, storing and selling the mood-altering drug.
It will be several more weeks or months before the law could take effect. It first must be signed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is expected to do so, and then sit on Capitol Hill for 30 legislative days to allow any member of Congress to raise objections.
Like the city's recent marriage equality act for gays and lesbians, the city is hoping that Congress won't interfere with this local legislation. Already, 14 states in the nation have a version of medical marijuana. The District originally passed a voter initiative in 1998 calling for medical marijuana, but Congress blocked it.
Another worry is how the federal government might react. The federal drug laws are far tougher than the city law. Any marijuana is illegal under federal statutes.
But city officials point to a letter from the U.S. Justice Department last fall, which oversees the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, that said it will not target or single out medical marijuana clinics or patients as long as the drug is clearly being used for medicinal purposes and is not being abused.
The D.C. law has strict accountablity provisions that also restrict patients, such as anyone convicted of drug abuse laws. And only physicians located in Washington can recommend medical marijuana for District citizens. Precisely what medical conditions will qualify, where clinics will be located and what type of marijuana will be sold are issues still being worked out while the law makes its way through Congress.