Green rush, grey market: How free weed is firing up D.C.'s pot 'gifting economy'

In stoner-tolerant Washington, D.C., a green rush is booming for marijuana products, courtesy of shrewd merchants who have cultivated a "gifting economy" to circumvent laws restricting retail marijuana.

Don't be surprised to get 'a little something-something extra' from cannabis-friendly vendors

Personal recreational marijuana use became legal in Washington, D.C., under a 2014 ballot initiative. It legalized possession, cultivation and donation of weed to adults, as long as no money is exchanged. (Associated Press, CBC)

For an asking price of $50 for a grape lollipop, at least the vendor tossed in some locally grown goodies. The free samples, given away with a handshake in the hazy basement of an after-hours Ethiopian restaurant, came sealed in a plastic baggie — 3.5 grams of downright skunky marijuana buds.

The customer quickly disregarded the candy for his "free gift."

"Just a regular lollipop," he said over a steady thrum of grimy hip hop.

"And this," he said, dangling his complimentary baggie, "is ganja!"

A customer at a cannabis-themed flea market in the basement of an after-hours Ethiopian restaurant shows off a grape lollipop he bought for $50. He received a 'free gift' of marijuana buds. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

So it goes in stoner-tolerant Washington, D.C.

Even after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Obama-era guidelines over the holidays, rolling back a policy that helped shield from federal enforcement marijuana use in states where the substance was decriminalized, a green rush is booming for pot products in the District. 

It comes courtesy of shrewd distributors who have cultivated a successful "gifting economy" to game restrictions on retail weed.

The change is literally in the air. Sniff around long enough pretty well anywhere that isn't federal land and the dank smell of cannabis commerce will drift to your nostrils. It's only become more potent since the passage of the 2014 recreational pot law known as Initiative 71.

Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, but the D.C. ballot initiative legalized possession of up to two ounces of pot, home cultivation of up to six plants, and the gifting of up to one ounce of pot to a person 21 or over.

The ambiguous framework allows for small amounts to be given away free, though buying and selling pot in the U.S. capital remains illegal.

A vendor at the CannaMania marijuana-themed flea market displays an airtight jar containing a sample of marijuana. Merchants at the event sell everything from toys to snacks and stickers of Maryland crabs, then offer a cannabis product 'free.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Savvy "ganja-preneuers" have found a way to turn this cannabis grey market into a lucrative pot bazaar.

"You've got several stores that are on the free-gift model," said Mike Evans, the "senior grow tech" at Grow Club DC, a supplier of hydroponic equipment in the Adams Morgan neighbourhood, known as Washington's "green light district."

The not-quite pot purveyors sell everything from paintings by deaf artists to edibles such as "medicated" chocolate truffles, Evans said.

The FunkyPiece smoke shop in the Adams Morgan neighbourhood is located in D.C.'s 'green light district.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"And it's amazingly open here."

So open, in fact, that sidewalk merchants will hawk $60 plain white T-shirts with a "free gift" outside the bars and clubs lining the buzzy U Street corridor.

One business delivers cold-pressed juices to customers' doors. At the FunkyPiece head shop, $15 "KushKards" include birthday messages along with striking tape and a pre-rolled joint in every handmade greeting card.

Self-termed "cannabis consultants" have been known to roam residential streets, promoting home tutorials on rolling and sparking joints.

Handmade $15 'KushKards' greeting cards at FunkyPiece include designs that feature match-striking tape and the option to include a 'free' pre-rolled joint on the front. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The expectation is almost always that any service or product comes with a side of locally grown product. And some of the ventures may sound plain loopy.

DreamyDC, founded by Ryan Ha, a standup comic and app developer, delivers in-person "motivational speeches" that sound more like fortune-cookie wisdom. Customers pay between $60 for a "zen" speech and up to $360 for a premium "power" speech, and can expect a free sampling of bud.

On a bench at Lafayette Park across from the White House, the 29-year-old founder thumbed through the app on a smartphone and recited one of the auto-generated one-liners: "Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs."

"That one is $60," Ha deadpanned. "And it's well worth it."

On a residential street, a self-described 'cannabis consultant' who goes by the name Giorgio hands out business cards offering his services and 'free souvenirs' of marijuana. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

While DreamyDC largely depends on word of mouth, weekly pop-up flea markets like the CannaMania event in the closed Ethiopian restaurant have boosted commercial cannabis.

On a recent Monday night, CannaMania patrons milled about tables, peering into airtight jars displaying artisanal strains like Cinderella's Dream, OG Kush and Pineapple Express.

Vendors stressed that customers could only purchase "non-cannabis items," which looked to be of questionable value. Stickers of cartoon Maryland crabs were for sale. A cheap-looking $60 Goofy key chain looked like it might belong on a gas-station carousel.

A customer at CannaMania bursts into a fit of coughs after taking a 'dab,' or flash vaporization, of marijuana concentrate. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"We got little Pokémon action figures, we got Pokémon cards, we used to do stickers, bandanas, socks," one pitchman offered as Bronx rapper Cardi B blared from computer speakers. The toys, he explained, were his unwanted childhood detritus.

"You tell me which Pokémon you'd want, and I would basically end up taking care of you, you know? That Pikachu is a quarter-ounce of flowers."

Price tag: Up to $80, depending on how much marijuana the purchaser has in mind.

A table at a CannaMania flea market shows items such as Pokemon toy figurines, trading cards, stickers and truffles for sale, along with samples of marijuana in plastic cases. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Soon, a cloudy-eyed college student in a fleece zip-up inquired about buying some Pokémon cards.

"We're, um, big collectors," he said, grinning and handing over some bills. He pocketed his trading cards and took a complimentary "dab," or flash vapourization, of strawberry-banana flavoured cannabis concentrate from a water pipe. He burst into coughs, then smiled, a happy CannaMania first-timer.

"I'll cherish this forever," he declared.

As long as nobody is openly running afoul of laws or causing a disturbance, police have for the most part decided to look the other way, said Joe Tierney, a cannabis connoisseur whose positive reviews are highly coveted in the community.

A merchant at FunkyPiece hands a customer 'free' cannabis for purchasing a $15 glass pipe. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Proponents of legalization note that between 2010 and 2015, arrest rates for possession with intent to distribute and distribution of weed plunged by more than 80 per cent, as police refocused crime-fighting resources.

Tierney, who blogs as The Gentleman Toker, is encouraged by the sheer variety of pot businesses sprouting in D.C.

"The innovation and stuff can be pretty interesting in terms of how many different things people are trying to do to gift cannabis in terms of art, music, stuff like that."

Marijuana plants are displayed under lights in GrowClub DC, a hydroponics shop. D.C.'s Initiative 71 allows individuals to grow up to six plants — three in a mature stage and three in 'veg"' stage. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Joint Delivery, a smoke-shop delivery service run by 24-year-old Connor Pennington, recently scored a positive review by The Gentleman Toker. Pennington runs a packaging, distribution and dispatching centre from an apartment downtown.

Clients order off Pennington's website and pick from a selection of rolling papers, glass pipes, vape pens and other smoking accoutrements ranging from about $50 to $100 per package.

"In an hour, you've got a lighter, you've got a pack of papers, you've got a doob tube" for storing blunts, Pennington said. "And then you get a little something-something extra to come with it."

Tiffany Burtt, left, and Connor Pennington run Joint Delivery, a smoke-shop online delivery service that offers gifts of cannabis to customers along with their purchases of items such as glass pipes and rolling papers. The company is rebranding as Bulb, a wellness company. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

On a recent mid-afternoon delivery, Pennington rolled up in a Jeep to the campus of George Washington University and delivered a $75 "Toker Poker" — for packing hash into a pipe — to a student on the sidewalk.

Pennington checked his driver's licence, confirming the customer was over 21. He swiped a credit card and handed over the package.

"Pretty easy," the first-time client said, shrugging.

He didn't even bother to check if everything was in the box. 

A head shop worker displays homegrown buds he calls Green Love Potion. Recreational marijuana use has been legal in D.C. since 2015. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

In the weed grey market, some of the highest pleasures come from the giveaway dropped into a package. Pennington doesn't always feel the need, as some of his competitors do, to formally announce that a "free gift" is included with the transaction. 

But was this particular customer expecting anything extra? 

"I hope so," he said. "Isn't that the point?"

And with that, he shook Pennington's hand, pocketed his purchase, and went to class.

Pennington delivers a package containing 3.5 grams of complimentary marijuana to a client who ordered smoke-shop products, at George Washington University's campus. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong