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D.C. hosts nation’s biggest legal marijuana giveaway

D.C. residents gathered at an Adams Morgan restaurant to receive free marijuana seeds in the country's largest legal pot giveaway. (Video: Dakota Fine/The Washington Post)

The District witnessed a massive, public drug deal Thursday — and for those involved, it was quite a bargain.

With D.C. police officers looking on, hundreds of city residents lined up and then walked away from an Adams Morgan restaurant carrying baggies containing marijuana seeds.

Taking advantage of a ballot measure approved last fall by voters that legalized possession of the plant, the unprecedented giveaway scattered what organizers said were thousands of pot seeds to cultivate in homes and apartments across the nation's capital.

Hundreds now have marijuana seeds. But can they grow it?

Depending on how many D.C. residents have green thumbs, a homegrown crop of pot could be ready for legal consumption by late summer.

The District is unique among the handful of jurisdictions that have legalized pot for recreational use; under a prohibition by Congress, buying and selling marijuana remains against the law. That made Thursday's giveaway — and not the opening of stores for legal sales, as has happened in Colorado and Washington state — the highest-profile event to date marking the reality of legalization.

The line for the marijuana “seed share” at the Libertine bar and restaurant snaked around 18th Street NW almost all the way to Champlain Street. It included people of many ages and ethnic backgrounds and from all corners of the city. Close to 8 p.m., it also featured a pouring rain.

Wendell Myers didn’t want to to stand at the back of a line hundreds of people long, but he had no choice. He wanted marijuana seeds, and this was the only place he could legally snag some.

“If I could buy it, I wouldn’t need the seeds,” said Myers, 53, who lives in Petworth. “I can’t grow anything. But it’s a weed. I know I’ve already been able to grow those in my back yard.”

Thanks to Congress, the District has no ability to track the seeds dispersed Thursday. That could feed a "gray market" for bartering and other attempts to profit off legalization.

In Colorado, every seedling raised for the commercial sale of pot is tracked with a 24-digit radio-frequency identification tag. Sales are heavily taxed by the state, with the money going mostly to education. In the District, thousands of plants could soon begin growing with no such oversight or benefit to the city.

But proponents of the ballot measure say that a crop from amateur growers could increase supply and reduce the market for illegal street sales.

The giveaway attracted no protest and little attention from official Washington. D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump offered a short comment went asked about the event: “Seed sharing is not prohibited.”

Home growing was intended by the ballot measure, known as Initiative 71, which voters approved in November. The measure allowed for owning, growing, sharing and smoking (out of public view) marijuana. Each resident in the District is allowed to cultivate six seedlings and up to three mature plants. The limit per household is 12 plants.

Growing pot in publicly subsidized housing complexes remains illegal in the city under federal law.

“Home growth is what 70 percent of voters approved,” said Adam Eidinger, head of the seed giveaway’s sponsor, D.C. Cannabis Campaign.

Near the entrance to Libertine, Eidinger was the marijuana maestro Thursday night, wearing a red bandanna and ushering inside a single-file line of grinning patrons with talk of the racial injustices in D.C. jails that led him to spearhead the effort to legalize marijuana.

Eidinger said he and about 50 people brought seeds to share. In the days before the giveaway, thousands were divvied up according to genetic strains. In bags of 10 to 20 seeds each, they were arrayed on tables on the bar’s second floor when the doors opened at 5:30 p.m.

Todd Kingman, 22, brought thousands of seeds from his personal collection to give away. He wasn’t specific about how he obtained them but said he collected them over time and purchased at least some from online seed banks abroad. He already grows marijuana at his home near Adams Morgan and said he didn’t mind handing out the seeds free.

“I wanted to give someone else an opportunity to do what I do,” he said.

Outside, many in line declined to be interviewed or share their names with reporters. But the giveaway was festive. An activist from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals dressed in a cow costume and handed out vegan snacks. The group’s message: When the munchies strike, “Say No to Pot (Roast).”

A second giveaway is planned Saturday at the cannabis campaign’s headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue off Dupont Circle. Eidinger said 1,300 people in all had signed up to attend the two events.

While Thursday’s event marked the beginning of public use of Initiative 71, it also amounted to the curtain call for the successful campaign pushed by Eidinger and other hard-core advocates of marijuana legalization in the District.

Under city election laws, the campaign must disband this spring and discontinue organizing public events. Eidinger said he wishes it could continue defending the law from critics. He said he plans to form a new community group to continue promoting safe marijuana use, and he will keep pressing members of Congress to allow the city to set up a system to tax and regulate pot like Colorado does.

Of the seed giveaway, he said: “Once the campaign is over, we won’t be doing this every year. This is a one-time deal.”