About 30 party guests wearing suits and summer dresses mingled in the candlelit back yard of a small, private home in the Forest Hills neighborhood in Northwest Washington and snacked on hors d’oeuvres to the sound of jazz. Instead of cocktails, they sipped gourmet coffee and tea infused with marijuana.
In the kitchen, servers poured hot and iced drinks for the tasting party. They were showcasing products from House of Jane, a California-based company that sells cannabis-infused beverages. Jane’s Brew C-Cups were on display in the living room, stacked on a table alongside similarly branded coasters.
“What Jane’s Brew is trying to do is alleviate, remove the stigma for cannabis,” said Jill Amen, the company’s co-founder, who was allowing the guests to sample her products for free. “It can be done in a professional way — just like a cocktail party, a very social event. Because it is a social event.”
This is the new world of marijuana in the nation’s capital, where residents have been able to legally possess, privately consume and grow limited amounts of pot since February.
The sale and purchase of marijuana remains illegal here, unlike in the four states that have fully legalized both recreational and medical marijuana. Instead of being sold at shops and generating new tax revenue, marijuana in the District can be grown at home and shared.
Smokers and growers said they can be more open about their passions, but local politicians, activists and businesspeople said pot continues to be sold illegally at homes, on park benches or in the street. The illegal market is as robust as ever — perhaps more so with D.C. residents curious and talking about marijuana.
As written, the law allows for dozens of scenarios that cause residents and police officers to shrug their shoulders. You can’t buy or sell marijuana, but what exactly constitutes a transaction? The line between legal and illegal is fine and blurry, confusing many and creating loopholes that some growers and dealers hope to exploit.
The people who helped put legalization on last year’s ballot said this will be the reality for the city for at least two or three years. The federal government still classifies marijuana as an illegal and dangerous drug. Lawmakers’ positions on marijuana have not evolved as quickly as the public’s, and Congress has blocked the District from creating a system to tax and regulate pot sales.
“D.C. is kind of like the Alice in Wonderland of cannabis. The Queen of Hearts is Congress,” said Alex Jeffrey, the executive director of the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Recreation and regulation should go hand in hand. We are an exception to the rule.”
The city also has a medical marijuana program, which the D.C. Department of Health regulates. More than 3,800 residents were enrolled in the program in mid-July.
Keith Stroup, the founder and former executive director of NORML, hopes that the success of the District’s medical marijuana program will help change lawmakers’ minds. Members of Congress drive by the District’s medical marijuana dispensaries “and they realize that marijuana is legal here and the sky didn’t fall,” Stroup said.
Even if Congress — which approves the city’s budget — steps out of the way, it could take more than a year for the local government to implement a system for regulating and taxing pot sales unless the D.C. Council passes emergency legislation. After voters approved a ballot initiative by almost 70 percent to legalize medical marijuana in 1998, Congress prevented the city from creating regulations until 2009. The first legal medical marijuana sale didn’t occur in the District until 2013.
But Adam Eidinger, who served as chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which led last year’s ballot initiative to legalize pot, said he thinks possession, consumption and home cultivation of recreational marijuana are enough for now.
“On a personal level — this isn’t speaking so much about the movement but on a personal level — we’ve come so far. Like, it’s okay,” Eidinger said. “We can handle where we’re at right now for a little while longer and be very content with it. We’re not going to see a lot of problems with marijuana — for a while at least, I hope — that really require stores.”
A business climate has emerged in the District characterized by entrepreneurs finding creative, roundabout ways to make money legally without selling marijuana itself.
Businesses such as Canna Party bring products related to smoking marijuana into clients’ homes, similar to a jewelry party. MetroX DC delivers bongs, pipes and lighters to the doorsteps of D.C. residents.
After the D.C. law went into effect, Silver Spring, Md., resident Jacob Asbell founded Hydro-City, which sells and rents the equipment needed to grow marijuana indoors. Hydro-City’s grow kits include lamps, bulbs, tents, fans, timers, fertilizers and filters. Asbell and his co-workers started to install growing systems in D.C. homes in June.
“We come to your place, we set everything up for you, we teach you how to use it, we include everything you need to grow, and then just add seeds and water,” Asbell said. “Right now, unfortunately, the only way you legally can obtain cannabis in D.C. is to grow it yourself or have somebody give it to you for free. So unless you’ve got really, really generous friends, if you’re a regular consumer, then growing is an incredibly viable option. So our main thing is really making it accessible.”
Asbell said the law still causes confusion, and his business is “trying to navigate this crazy sort of situation in D.C.” Other businesspeople said they often feel as though they are wading into gray areas and have to test the law through trial and error.
Eidinger reopened his head shop, Capitol Hemp, this summer — about three years after the city made him and his business partner shut down. He sees business opportunities in accessory retail and manufacturing, pointing out that there are many types of pipes, rolling papers and vaporizers. Before the new law, head-shop owners had to pretend their products were only being used for substances such as tobacco, he said.
“It’s also sort of a sweet victory for us to be able to reopen the store without any fear,” Eidinger said. “You’ll be able to go into the store and talk about using marijuana if you’re over 21, and we can be completely open and have a totally open conversation about marijuana.”
Home growers here take pride in their plants and are trying to build their reputations among fellow growers. Facebook groups have cropped up where growers can share photos and ask for advice. Members of the groups also post about events, from massive seed shares to “grow schools” to “safety meetings,” where people smoke together at a private home.
Marijuana possession remains illegal on federal land, and that includes federally subsidized public housing in the District.
“What’s happened is that we do see a lot of people, who we would call closet medicators, are more open to marijuana programs,” Barnette said. “We can debate whether or not that was a direct result of Initiative 71, but I can tell there has been a spike in the level of interest and level of awareness of the medical marijuana program.”
In July 2014, 738 patients were registered with the Department of Health. By July 27 of this year, there were 3,948.
Barnette pointed out that the medical marijuana program had begun to explode before recreational legalization. The D.C. Council loosened the rules for obtaining medical marijuana last summer, setting off a surge in enrollment.
The District has seven cultivation centers and five dispensaries, according to the Health Department, and the D.C. Council has increased the number of plants that cultivators can grow from 95 to 500 to 1,000. But Barnette said even that hasn’t met demand. It has driven people to the black market, where marijuana is untested and sellers can’t be held accountable.
And Barnette said he’s not worried about homegrown plants competing with his product.
“Right now, all over D.C., people are learning just how difficult it is — or just how much attention is necessary — to grow a plant to pharmaceutical grade,” he said. “You can grow your own tomatoes. Most people don’t. You can grow your own carrots. Most people don’t. You can make your own beer. Most people don’t.”
News21 is a student initiative at Arizona State University funded largely by the James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corp. of New York.