The District’s marijuana initiative offers many pitfalls for the cannabis connoisseur, with strict limits on how much you can have and where you can smoke it.
But the hardest part may be growing the stuff.
Because marijuana sales remain illegal — unlike in states that have legalized recreational or medical use — the District’s initiative is based on people growing their own. Or in the mantra of Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier: “Home use. Home grown.”
Here’s the bad news, potheads: If you start a marijuana plant from seed or a cutting today, you won’t be smoking it until about Independence Day. It takes that long to produce the intoxicating buds, even if you have green thumbs.
“I don’t think students and others are going to sit around and stare at soil,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The new rules, putting into place last fall’s successful voter passage of Initiative 71, will do little to affect a thriving illicit market for marijuana, he said.
But he’s been waiting a long time for Thursday’s conditional decriminalization, and he said he marked the milestone shortly after midnight at his rowhouse in Columbia Heights by placing a few seeds in moistened paper towels, to get them to germinate and grow into something lush and useful.
Lanier and others have made it clear that growing marijuana plants outside is still illegal anywhere in the city: in gardens, on public lands, on rooftops or on balconies. Forcing the cultivation indoors — in theory — doubles your growing season from one a year to two or even three by shortening harvest cycles, but it requires a fairly advanced level of horticultural knowledge, as well as equipment and supplies that can run into thousands of dollars.
One factor is whether you have neighbors who object — or not — to the stench of engorged flower buds. If they do, expect to shell out $1,200 for a fancy filtration system, said Chris Conrad, an expert witness in marijuana-related court cases and an instructor at the school to which you wished your parents had sent you, Oaksterdam University — the cannabis college — in Oakland, Calif.
I asked him why I couldn’t raise marijuana as I do my cabbages, under cheap shop lights in the basement. He pointed out that my cabbages eventually go outside to that ultimate grow light, the sun, but any indoor cannabis plants would have to be raised under high-intensity discharge lights that draw 1,000 watts and cost at least $300 apiece. You have to buy ballasts and hoods as well. The lamps gobble energy and emit loads of heat, so you need a cooling system, too. Your six plants, he said, would need more energy each day than an entire family.
Add growing mix, expensive feeds and other needs — possibly a sound system to play them, I don’t know, the Grateful Dead or Snoop Dogg — and you can spend a thousand bucks or more.
Conrad said you can buy starter kits with growing tents and less-potent lights, costing perhaps $500, but your yield would be much reduced. I think I’ll stick with the cabbages.
Assuming St. Pierre’s seeds all germinate — some may be too old to be viable, he conceded — he will have to plant them into larger containers as they grow, ultimately in three-gallon pots.
Corey Barnette, who owns one of three medical-marijuana cultivation centers in the District, predicted that the new recreational initiative will induce many to try their hand at growing — but that few will stick with it.
“Just like the many thousands of people who love beer, most people don’t brew their own beer,” he said. In other words, you may have kicked that rent-paying hipster out of the growing room and spent hundreds of dollars and many weeks of your life growing ditchweed, and at the end of the day wished that you had just gone to that guy on the corner.
Part of the challenge is the peculiar nature of cannabis sativa: Each plant is male or female, and only the unpollinated female flowers produce the buds loaded in THC-rich resin, the compound that induces the high.
It takes about eight weeks for a plant to be ready to be tricked into flowering. At that point, the grower reduces lighting from 18 hours a day to 12. The plant thinks the days are getting shorter and races to bloom. As the gender of the flower buds then becomes evident — this takes two to three weeks — growers tend to discard the male plants. Once you have a known female plant, you can use that for cuttings, knowing that it will bud.
The District’s initiative allows a resident to grow three plants to mature budding stage and to keep three at a vegetative stage. But to do that, the grower has to establish two separate growing areas to control the different light requirements. Many growers use opaque tents to regulate hours of light and prevent accidental light pollution for budding plants. Needless to say, this isn’t a casual hobby for people who like to travel.
“One of the problems of indoor lighting is you can’t have light bleeding into it from anywhere else,” Conrad said. “You have to seal it off.”
D.C. residents who meet the growing rules (age 21 or older) and, where required, have a permissive landlord or mom, can possess two ounces of marijuana or receive as a gift not more than one ounce.
Another problem, St. Pierre said, is that the initiative doesn’t address where one might lawfully obtain seed or a cutting. He calls this conundrum one of “the immaculate conception.”
Once you grow your own, you can make your own cuttings, but they would then count in your total plant allowances — a couple could grow 12 plants.
Seed of potent, high-quality varieties are available on the Internet and through the mail, but buying them would run afoul of federal law, said George Van Patten, who has written about 20 books on cannabis cultivation under the nom de plume Jorge Cervantes. Seeds of choice varieties can cost $10 or more each.
The D.C. government, facing resistance from conservative lawmakers in Congress, has not adopted a regulatory framework that would permit the creation, licensing and taxing of commercial growers and retailers. Hence, the reliance on homegrown marijuana.
“This law in D.C., by any definition, is incomplete,” St. Pierre said.
He doesn’t know how his grow will turn out, but he doesn’t hold out a great deal of hope for his batch or those of like-minded D.C. residents.
“This is going to be laborious, and I don’t think it’s going to meet many people’s expectations, frankly,” St. Pierre said. “I go into it with trepidation, even though I have a library at my disposal and can contact the best cannabis cultivators in the country.”
“A lot of people will try, but just as we have seen in California, people don’t have the time, effort and discipline to be getting at anything,” said Barnette, who runs District Growers in Northeast Washington and is a speaker at a marijuana-growing convention this weekend organized by a company named ComfyTree. A regulated growing industry would require growers to list the ingredients and potency of edible products and the purity of buds, Barnette said.
“That’s why you don’t buy vegetables from your neighbor,” he said. “You go to the grocery store.”