D.C. Marijuana Market: Stuck In A Gray Zone Amid confusion and uncertainty about the District's marijuana rules, more and more people are challenging the law's limitations.
NPR logo D.C. Marijuana Market: Stuck In A Gray Zone

D.C. Marijuana Market: Stuck In A Gray Zone

Because of continued restrictions by Congress, Washington, D.C., has not legalized the sale of marijuana. Possession of certain amounts, however, is legal. Bill Clark/Getty Images hide caption

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Bill Clark/Getty Images

Because of continued restrictions by Congress, Washington, D.C., has not legalized the sale of marijuana. Possession of certain amounts, however, is legal.

Bill Clark/Getty Images

While public support for marijuana grows across the country, ambiguity surrounding marijuana laws in Washington, D.C., has provided an opportunity for online distributors. But it has also put consumers in a tricky spot.

The District's recreational marijuana law, a voter-approved ballot initiative passed in 2014, legalized the possession, cultivation and gifting of certain amounts of recreational marijuana, but not the selling of it. Initiative 71's framework left open the question of where people would get the recreational pot that they are allowed to possess.

Local politicians and the D.C. Department of Health have argued in favor of fully legalizing and regulating the sale of marijuana, but Congress has prevented the District from moving forward by restricting its funding. That funding remains in question as Congress debates spending bills for the next fiscal year. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting member of the U.S. House, has been lobbying lawmakers to lift the regulations.

In the meantime, some D.C. distributors have found a way to thrive.

LeafedIn.org, an app that provides a map of cannabis distributors, has seen an exponential increase in D.C. users this summer. John Khainson, one of the founders of LeafedIn, points out another trend in the current market: "We have seen an increasing amount of female users. This is a great indicator since the marijuana industry has been male-dominated for decades."

D.C. blogger and weed connoisseur Joe Tierney, also known as the Gentleman Toker, says young entrepreneurs are increasingly taking advantage of the law's gray areas around "gifting" to promote their startups. They'll sell food or clothes along with a marijuana "bonus."

"The cool thing about Initiative 71 is that it's created this power dynamic where brands can get recognition through cannabis," he says. "Businesses like District of C and Pink Fox have really grown their art and fashion lines directly through this self-managed system."

To be clear, selling weed still isn't legal in D.C., says Kate Bell, a member of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.

"Let's say you were running a sandwich shop and you decide as a promotion that for your hundredth customer, you were going to gift them a free bag of cannabis. That would be legal because you're clearly not selling the cannabis. It's a one-time unexpected thing, and you're selling your product at a reasonable price," she says. "But the idea that you can sell a $150 bottle of juice with 'free cannabis' isn't legal. It's clear people aren't paying for the juice."

The confusion isn't just about distribution. Consumers are running into their own gray areas. Bell stresses that one of the reasons legalization advocates like herself are pushing for broader legalization is because of a disparity between property owners and renters. People who rent their homes are more likely to run into issues with their landlord and may even be evicted. Tenants who possess marijuana may hesitate to file apartment complaints for fear of retribution.

Bell also worries about the continued racial disparities in public-consumption arrests; D.C. bars consumption of marijuana in public spaces and on federal property.

"One of the purposes of legalization was to address some of the discriminatory practices predominantly targeting African-Americans," she says. Decriminalizing marijuana made the number of arrests go down, but there are still disparities. "Before the Initiative, 91 percent of public consumption arrests reported by police were African-American. It's gone down to about 85 percent, which still isn't good."

As public support for marijuana has reached a record high, more states are jumping on the legalization bandwagon. On July 1, Nevada became the fifth state to allow the recreational use of cannabis.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced an amendment that prevents the government from impeding medical marijuana laws in individual states and D.C. That was in defiance of a request by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization.

Financial restrictions to the District's marijuana laws remain under consideration for the 2018 fiscal year.

But for now, D.C. distributors continue operating in the gray areas of Initiative 71. Nikolas Schiller, one of the law's authors, says the success of those distributors shows the economic opportunities that are possible if Congress lets D.C. establish a regulated marijuana market.

"It's disappointing that Congress is continuing the prohibition by not letting us move forward," he says. "They're denying D.C. residents jobs, they're denying the D.C. government millions of dollars in tax revenue, and they're denying a lot of people the opportunity to get into the ground level of an industry that is poised to make billions of dollars for the country."