A few years ago, DCist staff bought expensive lemonade — and it came with a "gift" of weed.
In many ways, the marijuana legalization law approved by Virginia's General Assembly this week and set to take effect in July isn't all that different to a legalization measure D.C. voters approved at the ballot box back in 2014. Both laws allow possession of small amounts of marijuana (an ounce in Virginia, two in D.C.), home cultivation of marijuana (up to four plants in Virginia, six in D.C.) and giving away or sharing up to an ounce of marijuana.
But one key difference is buried 157 pages into Virginia's 283-page legalization bill — and it stems directly from D.C.'s six-year-old legalization law and the experience with "gifts."
Like in D.C., Virginia's bill explicitly allows sharing marijuana — but adds language to clarify when it goes too far:
In short, passing a joint to a friend at a party will be legal in Virginia, as will giving them a small bag of your finest homegrown product. But money can't exchange hands — even as part of an arrangement where a person is buying something legal and getting the marijuana as a gift.
The language was directly born from D.C.'s experience, where a vague provision written into Initiative 71 around the gifting of marijuana has given rise to a wholly unregulated and legally questionable subculture of what looks like direct sales of marijuana by delivery services, at farmers' market-style events, and even at brick-and-mortar retailers.
Initiative 71 specifically says that anyone 21 or older can "transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana." But what emerged from someone reading between the lines is D.C.'s quirky gifting economy: someone will sell you a $50 sticker or $75 t-shirt, and give you a complimentary "gift" of marijuana along with it. (You may recall we once bought lemonade that came with a side of pot. For journalism, of course.)
D.C. police have always looked somewhat askew at this interpretation of the law, and have periodically launched raids on gifting events and stores. Late last month, police raided and seized inventory from The Garden, a brick-and-mortar store on New Jersey Avenue NW that sells tokens and gives gifts of various forms of marijuana. (The store's FAQ page says it "does not sell marijuana.") Seven people were arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
In Virginia's case, lawmakers and even marijuana advocates were intent on preventing a repeat of D.C.'s gifting economy. But the initial version of the bills went too far in the opposite direction, says Matt Simon, a senior legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project.
"They were going too far in their desire to not have a gifting economy ... saying adults couldn't share their cannabis with friends," he says. "We advocated for including sensible language that defines what sharing is and isn't."
And that, Simon says, led to the language on sharing and gifting that Virginia lawmakers ultimately adopted. It's not all that different to what lawmakers did in Vermont in 2018, when they clarified that the D.C.-style gifting businesses are a step beyond legal sharing of marijuana.
Earlier this week, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the author of the legalization bill that made its way through the Senate, brought brownies in for his colleagues to demonstrate what type of sharing would be permitted. (The brownies did not contain marijuana, he insists.) If someone wants to sell real pot brownies, they'll have to wait a few years.
"We want a regulated adult-use market. We want people who are buying marijuana to buy it from a licensed retailer where the product has gone through testing," he says, noting that legal and regulated sales of marijuana are expected to start in Virginia in 2024.
As for D.C. and its gifting economy, the city has been stuck in a Catch-22 largely not of its own making. After Initiative 71 took effect, congressional Republicans banned D.C. lawmakers from pursuing any further measures — including legalizing sales. That means the city's gifting economy has remained largely in place without a legal and regulated market to replace it, despite the fact that Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of D.C. councilmembers have wanted one for years. (In February, both Bowser and the Council re-introduced bills to legalize sales.)
"The illicit market thrives when there isn't a legal regulated alternative," says Simon. "It's debatable whether the gifting economy is better or worse than the illicit economy that preceded it."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.