A police photograph of three automobiles seized in relation to the arrest of Nicholas Cunningham and Evonne Lidoff for a distribution of marijuana charge. (Metropolitan Police Department/Metropolitan Police Department)

For months, a brightly painted Mercedes SUV and a Lexus coupe plied the hipster spots of the District along H and U streets and Adams Morgan, their operators openly doling out brownies, cupcakes, cookies and gummy bears that police say were laced with marijuana.

The vehicles, with out-of-state plates and bearing pictures of marijuana plants, were as common in some neighborhoods as food trucks, and the proprietors of “Kush Gods” did little to hide their enterprise. They talked to the media about trading pot for “donations,” and patrons could follow them on Twitter and call them on a phone advertised on the vehicles.

D.C. police labeled the enterprise criminal, and on Tuesday evening officers swooped down on the group as they set up on H Street NE, arresting Nicholas Cunningham, 30, who calls himself “Kush,” after a strain of cannabis, and a worker, Evonne Lidoff, 18. It is legal in the District to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and give up to an ounce to someone else, though selling any amount is illegal.

After his initial court appearance Wednesday, Cunningham called his arrest a “misunderstanding” but declined to elaborate. He said “marijuana business is good for the community. It cuts down on crime and helps people with epilepsy. I came to D.C. to heal the nation.”

Authorities allege that Cunningham was selling marijuana illegally from vehicles as openly as a chocolate sundae is sold from an ice cream truck. Federal and local police have made only seven busts for marijuana possession in 10 months this year, but have vowed to continue to target traffickers. One Internet site dubbed Kush Gods as “weed on wheels,” and New York magazine called his vehicles “one of the few outward signs that marijuana is legal in the nation’s capital.”

Nicholas Cunningham (Keith L. Alexander/The Washington Post)

Assistant D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said the investigation was driven by “numerous complaints from people about the blatant sales of marijuana.”

Newsham said the investigation began in October, and court documents say an undercover officer made eight buys over the course of several weeks. That officer returned with pot-infused brownies, gummy bears, cupcakes and, a few times, plastic bags filled with marijuana in leaf form costing $400, an arrest warrant said. In some cases, undercover officers set up buys beforehand by texting the number advertised on the vehicles, and police said each transaction involved hundreds of dollars in drugs, far more than a single edible snack.

Cunningham and Lidoff, of Northwest Washington, each were charged with four counts of distribution of marijuana, which are misdemeanors. Police said Cunningham is from Birmingham, Ala., but documents also list a Maryland address for him. The warrant identifies Cunningham as the operator of Kush Gods.

Both defendants pleaded not guilty Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court, and were released pending a hearing Jan. 28 and ordered to stay out of parts of Washington, including Chinatown and 13th and 16th streets near T and V streets NW.

Cunningham at first objected to the stay-away order. “I have a mobile business near Gallery Place,” he told the judge.

“The mobile business is selling marijuana,”Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Cobb responded.

Cunningham said his 5,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will find out where he will be located in the District in the coming days. “I know what I am doing is legal,” he said.

The business appears to be trying to parse the District law over how marijuana can be distributed. In interviews before his arrest, a man who identified himself as the owner told Fox 5 and New York magazine that he gave treats away free and that any money customers gave him were voluntary “donations.” But others familiar with the laws, even those who support making it legal to sell and tax pot, disagree.

“People have been asking me since the law went into effect, is that legal what they’re doing?” said Adam Eidinger, who runs Capitol Hemp shop in Adams Morgan and led the movement to legalize marijuana in the District. “Promising marijuana for a donation . . . is a quid pro quo. If you ask for something in return, it’s not really giving.”

Eidinger said he “feels bad for them that they got busted, but they shouldn’t be surprised. No one in the marijuana community has been telling them that what they’re doing is okay. . . . They’ve been doing this in front of law enforcement for months.”

Two weeks ago, New York magazine quoted a man identified as Nycholas Kush God saying “the brownies, each package is pretty much $10.” In that story, Kush God said: “I mean, of course it’s a business. I have to explain that to donors at times, people thinking I should just give it to them for free. I’ve got to explain that we still have to keep the lights on, and we still have got to provide this service, so you can’t just expect us to give this stuff away.”

Clarence Williams and Perry Stein contributed to this report.