In upper Northwest Washington, marijuana buds the size of zucchinis hang drying in a room once reserved for yoga. In the Shaw neighborhood, pot grown in a converted closet sits meticulously trimmed, weighed and sealed in jars. Elsewhere, from Georgetown to Capitol Hill to Congress Heights, seven-leafed weeds are flowering in bedrooms, back yards and window boxes.
Welcome to the first crop of legal pot in the nation’s capital — where residents may grow and possess marijuana but are still forbidden to sell it.
In recent weeks, a small army of mostly novice gardeners who took up growing when the District legalized marijuana in February have begun to roll, pack and smoke the joints, bongs and bowls of their labor. By one estimate, they have collectively grown upward of 100 pounds with a street value north of a half-million dollars — far more than most of these amateur cultivators are likely to consume on their own.
All of which presents a thorny question for District leaders and police in a city where cultivation and possession are legal but sales are not: How the heck will all this pot get from those who have it to those who want it?
A fitness instructor who took up the hobby six months ago has amassed enough pot to make tens of thousands of dollars selling it. Instead, he’s begun giving away a little bit to anyone who pays for a massage. The instructor asked not to be named out of concern that he or his home, where he sometimes serves clients, could become targets for criminals.
A T-shirt vendor in Columbia Heights who declined to comment may be working in a similar gray area. College students say the roving stand has become known to include a “gift” of a bag of marijuana inside a purchase for those who tip really well. And recently, dozens of people paid $125 for a class in Northwest Washington to learn about cooking with cannabis from a home grower. Free samples were included.
Andrew Paul House, 27, a recent law school graduate, may be the best early test case for whether home growers can find a way to make money from their extra pot.
House has started a corporation and a sleek Web site to order deliveries of homegrown marijuana to D.C. residents’ doorsteps — “free gifts” in exchange for donations to the company, akin to a coffee mug given to donors by a public radio station.
“I believe we are following the letter and the spirit of the law,” House said of the business he has named the Premium Club. “There’s this gap period where there is no retail and there is no regulation. My purpose is to step into that in-between time when there won’t be enough marijuana for adults to use recreationally and allow for the legal transfer under the initiative.”
None of this is what advocates for marijuana legalization who authored last year’s overwhelmingly successful ballot measure intended. They anticipated that if endorsed by voters, the D.C. Council would go the way of Colorado and Washington state and set up a legal system of sales and taxation.
Instead, conservatives in Congress blocked the city from doing so using their federal oversight of the District’s affairs. But Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier went forward with what the letter of the ballot measure allowed, legalizing everything but sales.
And they insisted in February that, despite the legal limbo, a gray market for marijuana would not be tolerated.
But a lot has happened since then, namely a 40 percent spike in homicides that has monopolized the attentions of both Bowser and Lanier and led to a reorganization of the city’s narcotics investigators to focus on major streams of drugs into the city.
That has left untouched a cottage industry taking root from the inside out, said Delroy Burton, head of the D.C. Police Union. Marijuana has become tolerated in the city so much that the D.C. State Fair added a marijuana-growing competition to its lineup of events Saturday. The “Best Bud” category joined the fair’s growing list of competitions.
“People are disguising sales as thank-you gifts, but they are being smart about it, distributing in a way that they cannot be charged with distribution,” Burton said.
Lanier’s department directed questions to the Bowser administration. Kevin Donahue, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety, said the administration remains focused on those trying to push the envelope of the new law. Representatives of the city’s health and police departments, as well as its licensing and business agencies, have met every other week since February, but the group has yet to identify anyone operating outside the bounds of the law.
LaQuandra Nesbitt, Bowser’s health director, chairs the group and said it has mostly field questions from individuals asking for advice on whether activities are allowed. A handful have done so, including one who requested a blessing to operate a public cooking display with cannabis. He was advised to use a stand-in herb.
Residents’ views of what’s allowed are often wrong, Nesbitt said, but the administration has not gone on the offensive. “We don’t actively police peoples’ homes,” Nesbitt said.
“Keep in mind that the spirit, intent and letter of the law is supposed to decriminalize a practice that can lead to overpolicing and overincarceration,” Donahue added. Asked about the Premium Club, Donahue said it didn’t necessarily sound like strict “home grow, home use” — Bowser’s mantra for what’s allowable. Despite a promise to do so, the administration has not yet launched a public awareness campaign around that message.
That, for now, has left the little-discussed ballot provision for home cultivation and the escalating supply it is producing the most problematic. The fruition of marijuana legalization in the District now looks like this:
From seedlings planted in red Solo cups on Day 2 of legalization in February, the fitness instructor and his friend, an expert in federal banking transactions who has grown pot before in Virginia, now have a supply to make any street dealer jealous.
On a recent Saturday, the two spent hours harvesting nearly a pound of marijuana as a portable air conditioner pumped recycled air through a large carbon filter. Incense burned near the front door of the apartment to mask the smell from anyone passing by.
The two allowed a reporter and a photographer to observe the harvest on the condition that their identities remain anonymous. The financial-securities expert said he fears his marijuana hobby could stigmatize him among colleagues at a suit-and-tie day job.
Under the ballot measure, District residents are allowed to “possess, grow, harvest or process, within the interior of a house or rental unit . . . no more than six cannabis plants, with three or fewer being mature, flowering plants.”
If more than one adult lives in the residence, the upper limits are twelve plants with six being mature at any one time. Those rules are among the most liberal in the nation; the District assigns, for example, no definition for the size of a full plant — as California and other states have.
As a result, by staggering the growth of seedlings in four modified tool cabinets purchased from Home Depot, the two are on pace to harvest roughly a pound a month — enough to roll about 1,000 joints.
Another grower who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about security has built an even more sophisticated growing room and expects a yield of medicinal-quality marijuana to “share” with friends suffering from a variety of ailments. The grower went through a months-long process of applying for a city building permit and having contractors and electricians outfit a new $6,000 room constructed in his Adams Morgan home solely for growing pot.
The vented and sealed chamber recently passed a city inspection, and the plants were moved in.
Many have tried to take a more organic approach to growing, using natural light and the District’s summer weather to bring plants to maturity. Those growers have generally had less success.
Adam Eidinger, the face of last year’s Initiative 71 campaign, was among those with a meager harvest, but Eidinger has no shortage. He has been gifted marijuana constantly as the harvest has come in. Eidinger said he has found pot on his doorstep, joints rolled up in tin foil and left on his car and bags simply handed to him walking down the street.
“I think it’s a sign that people feel good about themselves and what they were able to grow when they give to me,” he said. After his group gave away tens of thousands of marijuana seeds in March, it maintained an online photo gallery of hundreds of pictures that residents submitted of their growing seedlings. Based on those photos and visits to several homes, he estimates that about 100 pounds of marijuana have been harvested in recent weeks.
House, who launched the Premium Club, declined to say how many home growers he is working with or how many donations or deliveries have been made since the Web site launched last month.
He said “business is good — definitely better than expected,” and he is finalizing the launch of a mobile app with real-time information on deliveries.
Already in business for more than three weeks, House advertises that a portion of each $100 donation to the business will go to local charities. He hasn’t given away any of the money yet, but he said in an interview that he will begin to later this month. Of the remaining half, he takes a cut of each donation as his salary. Through a system he described only as “complicated and time consuming,” he said he directs the rest back to home growers.
The “gift” comes in a white Hallmark shopping bag. Inside is a box filled with marijuana and sometimes a bonus of rolling papers or an extra “free sample.” Last week, donors were given the choice of four marijuana strains, including Silver Haze and Gorilla Glue.
The business appears to be slightly outside the private-membership “cannabis clubs” that Bowser and the D.C. Council in February sought to prevent from forming by passing emergency legislation. Those restrictions would revoke the business licenses of restaurants and nightclubs that allow marijuana smoking on their premises.
That legislation is set to expire soon, however, and the mayor and council have not held any further hearings on whether to continue it since marijuana was legalized.