Johnnie Scott Rice has held a lot of titles in her life: director of constituent services, advisory neighborhood commissioner, D.C. Council candidate. But there is one title she covets that has eluded her: District pot dealer.
Rice, 71, is part of the Green House, a self-proclaimed “group of old ladies,” that the city recently turned down for a license to sell medical marijuana. Three other rejected applicants, including a Bethesda eye doctor and a competitive bass fisherman, have gone to court in the past week to contest the city’s decision, said Ted O. Gest, spokesman for the D.C. Office of Attorney General.
Many of those turned down have said the selection process is confusing and opaque. They contend the D.C. Health Department did not provide clear explanations for its decisions — an accusation city officials deny.
Rice and her partners, who include a former lingerie store owner and a social worker, are disappointed, although they have decided not to pursue legal action. For nearly a year, the women have used their retirement savings to lease a dispensary location in Shaw, hoping to provide medical marijuana to people with glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, and multiple sclerosis. They want to know exactly where they fell short in their months-long application bid.
“We don’t want to waste their time or our time,” Rice said. “It’s confusing even to us.”
The health department, which is overseeing the roll-out of the medical marijuana program, relied on a panel of experts to score each application.
The agency told one applicant that much of the proposal was “adequate” but denied it. It dinged at least three of the unsuccessful applicants for not providing a sample label even though the application didn’t require one.
Rice’s group asked to see its scores through a request under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act. But the agency refused to release the scores or other material that would shed light on the panel’s decision-making process, arguing that a final announcement has not yet been made, and that such documents contain trade secrets. The scores are also part of confidential deliberations by government officials that the city is not legally obligated to disclose, said health department spokeswoman Najma Roberts.
That explanation troubles the applicants that were turned away.
“I don’t understand why this is so secretive, especially for something so high profile,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a local political consultant working with Compassion Centers, which is affiliated with an established dispensary operator in California.
The two other groups that have filed appeals are the Health Company, which is led by Michael Duplessie, a Bethesda ophthalmologist, and the Free World Remedy, lead by Jonathan Marlow, a competitive bass fisherman from Northern Virginia whose mother suffers from multiple sclerosis.
The legal challenges are the latest wrinkle in a selection process marred by glitches from the start.
Since passing a medical marijuana law in 2010, the District has taken a go-slow approach in an effort to avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in other jurisdictions, such as Colorado and California, where critics say medical marijuana has become little more than legalized drug dealing.
The District’s regulations are among the toughest in the country, with strict limits on how many plants can be grown, how much the dispensaries can charge and who can buy it. Only people with certain chronic conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma qualify; they are allowed two ounces in a 30-day period with a doctor’s recommendation.
The city began accepting applications last year for licenses to operate up to 10 cultivation centers and five dispensaries. There were problems almost immediately. Some who had planned on applying were scared off by having to sign a statement saying they understood growing and selling marijuana was still illegal under federal law.
The health department initially rejected some applicants for minor errors, such as leaving off e-mail addresses, then later let them back in. Officials also rejected Duplessie’s application to operate a cultivation center because it was 90 minutes late — even though an evacuation of the agency’s offices was partly to blame.
The agency was supposed to announce the dispensary licensees earlier this spring but pushed the date back to June, forcing some of the applicants, including Rice’s group, to spend additional money to continue leasing space.
Last month the health department last month informed the 17 aspiring pot retailers which of them were still in the running. Only four made it through, and they must win approval from their local advisory neighborhood commissions.
The four that made it: Herbal Alternatives, which is looking to open a dispensary near 20th and M streets NW; Metropolitan Wellness Center Corporation, which is eyeing a location along Barracks Row on Capitol Hill by a fast-food restaurant and a tattoo parlor; Takoma Wellness Center, which plans to open near the Takoma Metro Station; and VentureForth LLC, which has a site by O and North Capitol streets NW.
So far, many of the groups that the city has tapped to grow and to sell medical marijuana have mainly been established pot dispensaries and cultivators from other parts of the country, including Abatin Wellness Center of Sacramento, the brainchild of former talk-show host Montel Williams.
Local officials, including D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), had hoped for more local representation. The local players who have made the cut for either a dispensary or cultivation license are retired Takoma Park rabbi Jeffrey Kahn and his wife, Stephanie; lawyer Edward Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association; financier Corey Barnette; and Capitol Hill liquor store owners Rick and Jon Genderson.
Deep roots in the city were a big part of the pitch that Rice, a third-generation Washingtonian, made at community gatherings in Shaw, where their dispensary was to be located, on the same block as social service agency Bread for the City.
Rice grew up in Trinidad, the daughter of a bricklayer, and has been a longtime fixture on the D.C. political scene. She has run for office, worked as an aide to Catania and served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7 for 10 years. She is also an insulin-dependent diabetic, has glaucoma and can no longer drive at night. Not long after the D.C. Council made medical marijuana legal, she heard from friends in California that cannabis could help people with glaucoma.
“It made me think about this,” she said. “If this medicine can improve these conditions in me, why not?”
Unbeknownst to her, Francine Levinson, 61, was also thinking about applying for a license. Levinson has started businesses before. She got into banking after she discovered she couldn’t get a loan without her husband or her father signing for her. She became a founding member of the First Women’s Bank of Maryland. Levinson later ran a lingerie store for nine years. She and Rice have been friends for years, but they didn’t tell each other right away about their interest in pursuing a medical marijuana dispensary license.
“Everybody was so timid about it,” Rice said.
After a mutual friend clued both of the them in, the two decided to partner up and even considered naming the business, “Frankie and Johnnie,” a reference to the classic song, until Levinson’s daughter, Stephanie Mantelmacher, 46, said, “no one is going to know what that means.” Seeing that her input might come in handy, Mantelmacher, a former executive with XM Satellite Radio, joined the group. Leigh A. Slaughter, 58, a lawyer and real estate agent, and former Whitman-Walker Clinic official Patricia Hawkins, 71, filled out the team.
If the city opens up the process again, Rice said, they would consider making another attempt. Until then, they can only imagine what might have been.
The people who will be coming to buy medical marijuana “don’t want to see some young kids selling dope,” she said. “Most of the clientele is going to look like us. We are the face of the users of medical marijuana.”