Not long ago, a man who had covertly dealt pot in the nation’s capital for three decades approached a young political operative at a birthday party in a downtown Washington steakhouse.
He was about to test a fresh marketing strategy to take advantage of the District’s peculiar new marijuana law, which allows people to possess and privately consume the drug but provides them no way to legally buy it for recreational use. Those contradictions have created a surge in demand and new opportunities for illicit pot purveyors.
“Do you like cannabis?” asked the dealer.
“Yes,” answered the man, who had recently left his job as a Republican Senate staffer.
So, the dealer recalled, he handed his new acquaintance a tiny plastic bag that contained half a gram of “Blue Dream,” a sweet and fruity strain of marijuana. With the bag he also presented a business card and an offer: If you like what you try, call me.
Within days, the man — now a lobbyist — picked up the phone.
The dealer — who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because what they do remains illegal — said he has used that same in-plain-sight sales pitch at similarly upscale D.C. settings, collecting three new buyers and a pair of new suppliers. The new business is all thanks to the quirks of the District’s legalization, which has boosted the appetite for marijuana as more people become comfortable acquiring it through the black market.
“It’s the dealer-protection act of 2015,” he said. “This was a license for me to print money.”
Who is responsible for this unintended consequence depends on whom you ask.
In November, Washington voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative that made it legal to possess and grow marijuana, but the following month, Congress enacted a spending prohibition that barred the city from creating a system through which pot could be lawfully bought, sold and taxed.
That means there are only three ways for people in the District to legally obtain marijuana.
Someone can give it to them, though the donors, of course, must find their own original source. Residents can each grow as many as three plants to maturity at one time, though that process is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. And with a doctor’s approval, people can get medical-marijuana cards, though supply remains dismal.
“The black market is the obvious choice,” said a 24-year-old government contractor who deals part time. “It’s awesome.”
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who has led Congress’s charge to thwart the legalization, blamed city leaders, insisting that they should have forbidden possession when he and other lawmakers prevented Washington from creating a controlled marketplace.
“There’s no question that demand will go up, and there’s no legal source of supply,” he said. “Clearly, this was not thought out rationally by the city government, which chose to go forward with legalization without regulation.”
John Falcicchio, chief of staff for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), sharply countered that assertion.
“In D.C., it shouldn’t be called the black market. It should be called the Harris market,” he said. “If there’s any uptick in the black market, it’s thanks to Harris.”
Dealers don’t seem to care who’s at fault. But they do appreciate the help.
One 62-year-old District man, who has sold pot off and on since he started smoking nearly half a century ago, said he has collected about 10 new buyers since the law changed.
“There’s been a pretty good uptick,” he said. “It’s snowballing.”
He met most of those customers at bars or meetings for the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Through suppliers in Colorado, the man pays about $1,000 per order for a quarter pound of “Sour Diesel,” a powerful strain named for its pungent smell.
If possible, he immediately sells half of his supply for between $600 and $650 so his total stock only briefly exceeds the two ounces — enough to pack a pair of sandwich bags — that D.C. law permits every adult to possess.
On a typical night, he carries up to 10 grams, a lighter and a pipe so potential customers can sample the product. He tries to sell grams for $20 apiece, which means that on each four-ounce order, he can profit as much as $770.
“That quickly adds up,” he said. “I pay for my bar tabs.”
Hani Ahmed, a community activist in Southeast Washington, said changes in the law have provided dealers in his neighborhood a new layer of protection, because even if they’re selling on street corners, police must witness the drugs being exchanged for money.
The law, he added, has also created confusion. Many people still don’t understand that pot can only be privately consumed.
“Everybody and they mama in Southeast thinks they can smoke outside,” said Ahmed, 29. “I’ve seen youngins smoking and walking past the police.”
In Northwest, the 24-year-old dealer/government contractor has also noticed evolving behaviors.
“People who wouldn’t smoke at all before are trying it now,” he said. “People who were closet smokers are now way out in the open.”
But overall, he has actually lost customers. No longer afraid of being caught with pot, several of his regulars now go directly to street dealers who sell at lower prices.
“If I was willing to be more brazen about it,” he said, “I’d just be sitting on the corner making an a--load of money.”
One District man in his 40s who has worked in the industry for more than two decades predicted the increased competition. As more people want to try pot, they’ll first ask friends who they know use the drug to buy for them as well. Those friends may soon see an opportunity.
“Regular people,” the man said, “are going to turn into small-time dealers.”
In 2013, residents of Colorado and Washington state faced the same dilemma: They could possess and consume pot but not legally buy it for recreational use.
Because it’s so difficult to collect reliable data on illegal drug sales, government officials in both Denver and Seattle were reluctant to estimate how black markets there had been affected, but independent research suggested that demand for pot increased even before the two states opened regulated markets in 2014.
Each year, a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration asks Americans whether they’ve used marijuana in the past month.
From 2011-2012 to 2012-2013, the number of adults nationwide who acknowledged use grew by less than half of 1 percent. Over that same period, the rate of increase among adults in both Colorado and Washington was at least six times as large.
It’s possible, of course, that people were simply more willing to admit use post-legalization, but a 2013 Rand Corp. study of Washington state also predicted that, prior to regulation, consumption of pot there would still expand by about 10 percent.
That boost in demand, supporters of legalization say, helps explain why lawful use in the District must be paired with lawful sales.
“If you’re going to legalize marijuana, you also have to legalize the supply because you want to get rid of the black market or at least limit the black market,” said Keith Stroup, founder of NORML. “Right now, they’ve done the exact opposite.”
Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, said a regulated market would have “pulled the teeth out of the illegal drug trade” and eventually wiped out the violence associated with it.
Jeffrey Miron, an economics teacher at Harvard University, compared marijuana’s potential evolution to that of alcohol after prohibition ended in 1933.
“People seem to prefer going to a legal supplier rather than making beer in their basement,” said Miron, director of economic studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, which supports the legalization of all drugs.
He and others who have studied the topic don’t suggest that illicit sales would disappear overnight, but after several years — even a decade — they argue that the black market could not compete with a controlled market.
Rep. Andy Harris rejected those arguments.
“I think there’s value in keeping the supply chain illegal at this point,” he said, maintaining that it provides “a check on the system.”
The longtime District dealer who now markets his product at chic D.C. gatherings has already considered what he would do if the city regulated pot sales.
He and his friends, he said, would open their own dispensary. They’d go legit.
The impact of legalization has seeped beyond the District’s boundaries.
When Justin was 15, his parents caught him smoking pot in his room. Marijuana was illegal, they told him. Don’t use it.
Justin, now 24, never stopped smoking but still lives with his parents in their Maryland home. After Colorado legalized the drug, their perspective seemed to shift. They told him to be careful but no longer forbid him from keeping it in the house.
Then, one evening a few months ago, the family returned home from dinner, and his parents followed him into his room. They shut the door so his teenage sister wouldn’t hear their conversation.
The change in the D.C. marijuana law, they explained, had also changed their minds.
“We know you have it,” he recalled them saying. “We know you know where to get it.”
They asked their son to become their middleman.
Justin bought them an ounce of a premium strain for $350. Each evening, after a long commute to and from a desk job in Virginia, his dad goes to his room and takes a hit from a bong he nicknamed “Saxophone.”
“He smokes the tiniest bit,” Justin said. “It’s like two flakes.”
Not long ago, Justin’s dad told someone at work about his new habit. He returned home with a question for his son: Can you get my co-worker some, too?