Nothing in Washington, D.C. is normal these days – and that's especially the case with our burgeoning marijuana industry. Voters here resoundingly approved a ballot initiative in 2014 that legalized recreational pot, but the Constitution gives Congress unique authority to control the decisions made by local officials who run the federal city. So after local voters spoke, Congress intervened and passed a law that prohibits D.C. from spending its own money to regulate weed. That's left marijuana policy here in limbo: You can legally possess and grow weed, smoke it on your property and have it in public, but in the District of Columbia, you can't legally sell or buy weed.
Those congressionally mandated (and locally scoffed at) prohibitions don't really matter here on the ground, though. Washington now is home to the most unique, bazaar-like marijuana marketplace in the nation, if not the world. Welcome to the D.C. Gray Market, brought to you by Congress. Here are the dos and don'ts of navigating the public and underground marijuana marketplace in the nation's capital.
The Basics of "Gifting"
Marijuana is a multi-billion dollar industry nationwide, and D.C.'s laws have pushed locals to come up with creative ways to capitalize on that market. Anyone over 21 is allowed to have up to two ounces of weed on them in Washington. On paper that's supposed to be strictly for personal use, because the law restricts you from selling or buying weed. But you can give marijuana away, so that's given rise to a unique D.C. pop-up culture that's unlike anything you've ever witnessed.
On a brisk Saturday afternoon, just a few blocks from the White House in what was the city's red light district just a few years back, visitors enter the dim threshold into a bar, and reggae music wafts over them – setting a distinctly different tempo for the day than what Washingtonians are used to.
As guests walk past the bar and into the back room, the aroma of raw, unadulterated weed overwhelms their nostrils. Venders are hand rolling perfect joints for the 300 or so guests – who range from people donning power suits to sweet elderly couples – they'll serve today.
Pungent, sweet smells emanate from the sticky marijuana buds bedazzled in vibrant orange, red, blue-ish and white crystals. While they may be tempting, you can't buy weed here. That would be illegal.
That also doesn't mean you leave empty handed. This is D.C.'s "gift" economy. You give them a stack of bills, and the vendors give you weed and usually a picture, a sticker or some trinket. Two separate transactions, at least in Washington's marijuana marketplace.
"I know it's a gray area – there's cops up and down this street all day," says the man running the event, who asks to be identified only as Wood. "They know this is going on." Most of the time he's a manager for a member of one of the nation's premier hip hop clans (hint: they claim they ain't nothing to fuck with), but now twice a week he facilitates these marijuana pop-ups.
Even with the restraints Congress attempted to shackle on Washington's pot industry, this and other markets across town offer a diverse variety of goods – ranging from an array of edibles to some of the dankest weed you've ever toked. They even have 100 percent hemp Wu Tang rolling papers that read, "Meditation is better than medication."
As it stands, much of D.C.'s marijuana industry remains geared towards locals. "I don't want the tourists," says Wood. "Because that's when you're going to run into your problems." With D.C.'s vendors still trying to figure out just what exactly they can get away with, they're also still training locals to use the right language ("gift," not "buy") and to get comfortable with this new, legal form of medication or relaxation. The fear is one tourist could mess it all up by getting too high, consuming pot on federal property or by boarding their plane home with a joint they bought at one of these pop-ups. There's also enough local clientele to keep them thriving, so why go out of the way to attract outsiders?
There have been some police crackdowns on pop-ups, though it's still hazy as to what exactly is going on. The police say they were merely responding to complaints from neighbors. Many industry people doubt that and think they're just trying to intimidate vendors.
Out of the Streets
Vendors in this hazy market remain wary of cops and usually only blast out an Instagram announcing their pop-up a few hours before an event. But those in Washington also have another option: Brick and mortar headshops that now "gift" you weed at their cash registers.
About 10 city blocks from the Capitol at the New Leaf Smoke Shop, a blow-up joint flailing in the wind alerts acute passers-by that you can score weed here. Inside, a Trump bobble head holds a joint, Obama smokes a joint on a tee shirt and there's even Bernie Sanders rolling papers. Here you drop $60.00 on a product, like socks or a bracelet, and then the real fun begins.
"Let's spin that wheel and win some weed!" Doc, the store's owner, bellows in childlike glee as a customer spins a wheel befitting a carnival. Guess what they won? That's right! Weed.
Gray isn't always good. There have been reports of people hosting pop-up shops that are straight up shady – where a crew of big dudes hover above and you're given two choices: Buy their overpriced, shitty weed or else. Have no fear. There's an app for that. While Airbnb hosts are just starting to cater to pot enthusiasts – leaving guests their desired assortment of raw weed or any edibles they request – D.C.'s delivery services are happy to bring pot to any hotel in town.
Nicole is a gregarious woman who spent more than three decades in the hospitality industry, and it shows as she prepares to deliver to a potentially nervous first time customer.
"You talk to them like you've known them your whole life, and that's the way I've always run my bars or serving anybody," says Nicole, who was plucked out of the bar scene by Joint Delivery – D.C.'s first and only smoking supply delivery service.
Nicole knows the marijuana industry here is new so many customers feel as if they're breaking the law, so that's why she puts a premium on putting her clients nerves at ease.
We pull up at a national chain restaurant downtown and within a minute or two a young professional female walks up.
"Hello pretty lady!" Nicole exclaims as she hands the woman a thick envelope with the different varieties of marijuana clearly labeled and with a thick colorful card that explains the difference between the strains. "How are you?"
"Good," she replies and hands her $200. "That is for you. Thanks so much!" The exchange lasts less than 10 seconds. No heads turn. It's the new normal.
The next delivery takes us to Kalorama – the posh neighborhood where the newly retired Obama family live close to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner – which reveals that D.C.'s marijuana industry is flourishing even in the most expensive, upper class corners of the city.
The D.C. Divide
The other thing about this town is that as long as the federal prohibition on marijuana remains intact, you can't legally smoke, drink, eat, vape or consume marijuana in any way on any federal land. And D.C. has a lot of federal land – including the expansive National Mall and most every federal agency that you may find yourself walking past on accident – so just keep it where you're staying or you risk being arrested by the Park Police. Proceed with caution near any federal property.