It was a brutally humid Friday afternoon in June. The unbearable heat seemed to force everything and everyone to move at half speed, causing a feeling of inescapable boredom to wash over me. Just when I could feel myself slipping into a drowsy, “auto-pilot mode,” my phone trumpeted the arrival of a text. It was from a friend inviting me to join him on an adventure to D.C. to attend a pop-up event that evening. The primary reason for the event? Promoting and distributing cannabis products of all kinds via the legal loopholes created by Initiative 71. It was spontaneous, it was mildly risky, and it was just the cure I needed for the impending boredom.
Before I delve into the details of this story, a quick lesson on the current marijuana laws within our Nation’s Capital:
Initiative 71, passed in 2014 by D.C. voters and became effective on February 26th, 2015, allows anyone over 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to six plants in their home (no more than three plants can be mature), and give away up to one ounce of marijuana to another person over the age of 21.
You can still be arrested if you smoke or consume marijuana in public, have more than two ounces, or sell any amount of marijuana.
Under federal law, however, federal law enforcement officers can still arrest anyone in the District for possession of any amount of marijuana. This means that you cannot smoke or ingest marijuana on federal property in D.C. (which accumulates to 29% of the city).
So, in order to participate within the current laws, cannabis entrepreneurs have created what is commonly known as the “gifting system.” This enables an interested consumer to buy a shirt, a hat, a sticker, or even offer a donation to receive an extra-special “gift with purchase.” Since the gift could be considered a separate transaction and as long as everyone’s over 21 and it’s under an ounce, it all falls under a very grey legal area that local law enforcement isn’t readily willing to dive into.
Needless to say, this has formulated an unusual atmosphere in a city that isn’t a stranger to obscurity. To make matters worse, Congress scrambled in December of 2014 to pass an omnibus spending bill that included a legislative rider targeting D.C.’s Initiative 71 by barring the use of funds to “enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with possession, use, or distribution of any schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act…for recreational purposes.” Essentially, local officials within D.C. cannot utilize any federal funding to regulate the distribution of (now) legalized marijuana or collect any sales tax generated through this booming industry. Furthermore, Congressional Republicans threatened prison time for D.C.’s Mayor, Muriel Bowser, and others involved if they moved forward with voter-approved ballot Initiative 71. Thankfully, no one within the Mayor’s office was thrown in prison and Initiative 71, while imperfect, still stands today.
Ingesting all of the facets of information revolving around Initiative 71 can make you feel spacey even before utilizing the Initiative’s perks. I was still unsure how this process worked while I was deciding on what to wear for the pop-up event (Do I wear a T-shirt with a pot leaf on it, or is that too “on-the-nose”?), but I didn’t get any concrete answers until I arrived at my friend’s apartment. “To get into the loop for these things,” he explains, “you have to request to follow one of the vendors on Instagram. Once they approve you, send them a direct message asking about the event and they’ll give you an address, the times of operation, and what the cover charge should be. Typically, these things happen over the weekend and stay open from 7pm to midnight.”
Once we sent our DMs, we waited… and waited… and… waited some more. Finally, I reminded him how NoVa traffic is notoriously a living nightmare and we jumped in the car, racing towards I-95 North even before we had an address. We didn’t get confirmation on the location until I was passing the Pentagon.
Contrary to what some of you may think, the event was in a fantastic part of town. The sidewalks were lined with bustling local restaurants and storefronts and filled with smiling faces of all age demographics. The only problem was finding a place to park within a multiple-mile radius. Luckily, the pop-up venue was next to an auto-repair shop that was closed for the day, so I carefully wedged my car between two trucks that were scheduled for body work and we ventured into the crowd.
My friend stops me before approaching the front steps. Hulking members of Security Staff, emotionless and clad in black T-shirts, scanned the crowd carefully. “We need to wait for a buddy of mine,” he tells me, “he’s going to act as our guide.”
Within minutes, a tall, abundantly jovial man parts through the crowd and walks up to greet us with a sincere smile. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him Sully. I could instantly sense that Sully was genuinely excited to be our guide just as he could instantly sense that this was my first time going to a marijuana marketplace. We breezed past Security as Sully shakes their hands, telling them, “They’re with me,” meaning we weren’t going to be charged the cover price for admission. Immediately inside, a thick black curtain hung from the 20 foot ceiling all the way down to the floor. Sully slowly parted the curtain and I nearly started belting “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka once I saw what was on the other side. If it wasn’t for the venue’s DJ playing a song with an incompatible tempo, I probably would have.
Vendor booths framed the entire space, each of their tables filled with every form of cannabis product imaginable. Sativa, Indica, and Hybrids galore, ranging from vibrant hues of majestic purple, fuzzy orange, and deep emerald green. Vendors encouraged me to peer at their products through magnifying lenses so I could see the beautiful crystallization that encrusted their most prized harvests.
I passed by countertops blanketed with delectable edibles. One vendor specialized in making “Chronic Captain Crunch and Marsh-mellow Cereal Bars” and I found myself enthusiastically shaking that man’s hand in appreciation for his creativity. Nearby was a booth promoting infused oils for consumers looking for a high CBD or THC concentration.
Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t even scratch the surface to the reality of being in that room. Years of paranoia whenever weed was present in a public space were shattered by the calm disposition of everyone in the room. Granted, the dense fog emulating from consumers scattered about may have contributed to the overall relaxation, but it was more than that. This is how it’s supposed to be.
No longer shall we simply buy whatever some dealer has on hand at the time, equally unaware of what strain it is or even if it’s an indica or sativa. Consumers should know exactly what they’re buying and be able to personally ask the growers any questions they may have with comfort and ease. Even more importantly, consumers searching for the medicinal benefits of cannabis should be able to know which strains alleviate whatever ailment they’re suffering from.
Sully instructs me to download the Leafly app. It not only gives a detailed history of each strain, it bullet-points all of the medicinal qualities as well as the possibility of dry mouth, dry eyes, or over-active appetite. However, each vendor is happy to offer all of that information about every product they have on hand. I started throwing out different scenarios to test them while using my Leafly app as a reference source. “Which strain would uplift my mood without making me drowsy and assists with migraines?” I’d ask. The vendor would hand me a magnified viewing jar of the correct strain without hesitation.
At one point, I began to scan the room like the Security Staff. Admittedly, even I was surprised by the social diversity of the crowd. Sure, you still had the stereotypical “stoners” who are always a pleasure to be around and always willing to discuss their favorite Pink Floyd song, but there were businessmen in suits stopping by on their way home from work, Baby Boomers sharing a bong with Millennials, and surrealist artists bonding over a shared culture with status quo suburbanites. Everyone I approached was happy to tell me their reasoning for being there and the crowd average wasn’t only there for recreational use, it was mainly for medical use.
One woman I spoke with worked at a bank to support her two children. She also suffers from debilitating arthritis in her hands and a chronic stomach condition that causes nausea. She laughed at my question asking if any of her previous medications worked as well, replying, “I wouldn’t be here if they did. I don’t do this to get stoned, I know exactly what strains can help me.” It wasn’t long before I was introduced to people desperately searching for anything to quell their depression, cluster headaches, insomnia or fatigue, chronic pain, or stress just to name a few ailments. But almost everyone could agree on one thing: they were tired of the side-affects from their traditional prescriptions.
With us having to endure a long drive home, we decided to leave the event long before it was scheduled to close. We said our goodbyes to our new companions and Sully ignored my extended handshake to give me a giant bear hug. I froze in terror when I saw a pair of policemen walking towards the venue, but they immediately shook hands with the Security Staff and exchanged jokes while my nerves settled back down. My friend and I sat in stunned silence while leaving the District and I couldn’t help but think of the sheer hypocrisy while driving past the Capitol building. He finally spoke when we passed the sign for Potomac Mills, “Which sounds better, District of Cannabis or District of Chronic?” Based off of this title, you know which one I voted for.