Patrons at the U Street bar Dodge City. Washington bar owners and other nightlife purveyors wonder how the legalization of marijuana could affect their businesses and responsibilities. (Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)

It was Election Day in the District, but as Ian Hilton walked past a polling place on Vermont Avenue NW, he was stunned to detect the pungent scent of pot in the air.

“Usually, I don’t smell anyone smoking a joint out in public,” said Hilton, who owns several D.C. bars with his musician brother, Eric.

It wasn’t even clear yet whether Washingtonians would vote to legalize weed, but the distinctive aroma wafting toward his nostrils had Hilton bracing himself. He wondered: Will pot-smoking bar patrons be his next big headache?

The marijuana initiative on the ballot went on to win the resounding approval of 69 percent of Washington voters, but it could be months before the District is legally lighting up. Even then, it’ll have to be behind closed doors, because smoking weed in public will still be illegal.

But for bar owners and others entrenched in the city’s nightlife, it’s hard not to inhale the hazy pot cloud of what-ifs.

Voters in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia voted to legalize marijuana in this year’s midterm elections. They'll join Colorado and Washington, which did so in 2012. So could other states follow suit in 2016? Niraj Chokshi with The Washington Post's GovBeat blog breaks down the possibilities. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

What if, for example, legalization emboldens smokers to puff-puff-pass on U Street? If it does, the bouncers at his bars will have one more thing to keep an eye on, said Hilton, whose businesses, including Marvin and the Brixton, all feature decks and open-air spaces where people can smoke cigarettes.

“You know someone’s going to do it,” said Hilton with a hint of weariness in his voice. “We’ll probably be like, no, you can’t, and you gotta go.”

Derek Brown, a co-owner of a string of Shaw bars including Mockingbird Hill and the Passenger, worried a little after a bartender friend in Colorado, where marijuana possession was legalized in 2013, told him about “stoned people who just sit there, and they order less, and they hang at the bar, and they’re totally goofy.”

It’s not just a potential dent in his sales that Brown is concerned about. It’s the aggravation. Could customers get so mellow that they wouldn’t appreciate, say, the personalized cocktail and food pairings — at nearly $70 a person — offered at his reservations-only crown jewel, the Columbia Room? “Surely,” he said, “there must be a beanbag somewhere that they can go plop down on instead of my bar stool.”

Brown and others, however, hardly think that pot is likely to turn the city’s proud hotbed of Type-A personalities into a den of sweatpants-wearing, carb-munching couch potatoes.

Washingtonians who don’t already indulge aren’t about to start shedding their put-together veneer, Brown said. When he bartends staid political events, plenty of people feel uncomfortable even drinking. “They tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t want any hard liquor till after I meet the president,’ ” he said. “A lot of people confide in me that they go to those parties, and they’d like to drink, but they feel like they can’t because people are watching.”

Yes, be assured that people are. Power players will have not just their images but also their highly prized security clearances to consider in a post-legalization District: Federal government workers are being gently reminded that in their employer’s eyes, weed will still be illegal, and that doing illicit drugs is a fine way to get your clearance revoked.

Adding to the haze surrounding the District’s measure: If it passes congressional muster, it will give the city’s over-21 residents the freedom to carry up to two ounces of pot, keep up to three mature plants in their homes and, if they’re feeling generous, share up to an ounce with a pal. But buying or selling will still be illegal. (And how any of this will be policed is anyone’s guess, all left to be hashed out in a separate bill.)

But here’s a deep, dark little D.C. secret: Those immersed in the city’s nightlife scene say that pot is already in the pockets of the city’s social set.

“Even in Georgetown, people you see with salmon pants and needlepoint belts, a lot of those types smoke,” said Sophie Pyle, the former managing editor of D.C. society blog Guest of a Guest, which covers the indiscretions of young socialites. “The stereotypical Georgetown — there’s a lot of weed there.”

What she doesn’t expect to see is the city’s circuit of charity balls and black-tie galas turning into smoggy love-ins. “When people go to the events, they’re trying to make a good impression,” she said. “It’s not just socializing. These are still networking opportunities.”

So, no. No toking at the Meridian Ball.

And meanwhile, how has legalization worked out in Colorado and Washington state, whose experience will probably serve as a model for the District’s?

Turns out, restaurateurs in Colorado aren’t grappling with customers who light up at their bars. They’re trying to figure out how to handle serving alcohol to customers who are already high, said Sonia Riggs, president of the Denver-based Colorado Restaurant Association, which represents 4,500 restaurants and bars. They’re also unsure what they can do legally if their employees come to work stoned.

“It’s the unintended consequences that we’ve been realizing,” Riggs said. “It’s really been a lot stickier of an issue than people realized.” Hmm. That’s something to put in your pipe, D.C.

As for Washington state, the change there has been more subtle, said Greg James, a suburban Seattle resident who this year started a magazine aimed at marijuana entrepreneurs, though he says that he doesn’t partake himself. In day-to-day life, “you wouldn’t even really know that Seattle was any different than Dallas,” he said. Probably the biggest change he has noticed is that it’s his friends in their 40s and 50s — the dinner party set, not the typical club kids — who have taken up smoking again, years after they’d quit. “A couple were parents who said, ‘I didn’t ever want to smoke marijuana when it was illegal, mainly because I have kids and I didn’t want them to think that I would break the law.’ ”

So, what if D.C. residents decide to take the occasional bong hit before hitting the bars? Abdul Kayoumy, a co-owner of U Street bars Velvet Lounge and Dodge City, said that he for one wouldn’t mind a bit. In fact, he thinks that marijuana could turn out to be a boon for the bar business: Weed famously gives smokers the munchies, after all.

“I’m a hundred percent pro-weed,” Kayoumy said. “I just came back from California, and nobody’s acting stupid out there.”

Plus, he said, maybe it’ll mean that customers are “going to be a little bit chiller.”

In the Capital City? That would be a giggle.