While visiting Washington, DC for an unrelated event, I was given an assignment by Civilized that would have me attempt to check the legal temperature of recreational cannabis in the state.
To see if I could get my hands on some legal cannabis in Washington DC.
$0. Nothing. Zilch.
This figure has less to do with Civilized’s wallet than it does with the district’s shaky legal status surrounding the substance. Back in 2014, DC voters passed ballot initiative 71, which effectively legalized both the possession and use of recreational marijuana, but Congress stepped in to prevent the nation's capital from allowing marijuana retailers.
So, basically, you’re allowed to grow it, store it and smoke it, but you can’t buy it. This, of course, begs the question--how does one get it in the first place? This was what I hoped to answer.
Finding a free moment a couple days into my trip, I decided it was finally time to check out the the city’s famous monuments and gather research for this article.
I had no real entry point, but I knew that I didn’t want to go from person to person, asking for free weed like some mooch at a high school party. I also had very little interest in getting arrested in the nation’s capital. So I began by looking for the most official-looking person in the area to ask about the legal ramifications of procuring weed in a public space.
It didn’t take long. To the left of the Lincoln Memorial, a park ranger stood in the shade next to a box that read “Tell Us How We’re Doing.” His name was David Smithy. At first, Smithy responded to my questions cordially and with no sign of disdain or incredulity.
Once we had struck up a bit of a conversation, he related what he typically saw in the park, with the caveat that he wasn’t speaking in an official capacity. “From what I’ve seen, if they catch you smoking it, they’ll take your pot and write you up,” he said. "You’ll go before a judge, and he’ll throw the case out. Then, later, people will come back and ask for their pot back. If it’s park rangers, the answer will likely be no. If it’s the DC police? It’ll likely be yes. The reason for this--”
Before he could finish his point, a strong wind knocked over the ballot box, sending small pieces of paper flying. He grabbed it, chuckling. “Aw, shoot,” he said. “I knew that was going to happen.”
I attempted to ask a follow-up question about medical usage as he gathered the slips, but his tone shifted slightly, becoming more reserved.
“That’s about all I have to say about it,” he said, retaining his polite smile. “You can try getting an official statement from the park’s information officer, Mike Litterst, though.”
I stopped writing and looked up from my phone.
“Mike Litterst,” he repeated.
“Can you, uh, spell that for me?”
At first I thought maybe he was messing with me, but a quick Google search clarified the pronunciation of Litterst’s name - and its jarring similarity to a certain part of the female anatomy, which has been the subject of ridicule for a long time, highlighted both on Reddit and the Comedy Central program Tosh.O. Litterst himself never responded to my email, but, judging by his past interviews on the subject, he generally takes a very diplomatic (i.e. uninteresting) stance on cannabis consumption in public spaces.
After concluding my discussion with the ranger, I began making my way back towards the Washington Monument. I got a little lost, and somehow found myself on the untended grounds surrounding the park. As luck would have it, I happened across a young man sitting in a portable lawn chair engrossed in a paperback. Because of his relaxed demeanor, I figured he probably wasn’t a tourist. I approached and introduced myself.
His name was Avery Hicks, a 21 year-old local. He was friendly, and open to talk with me.
“You can get it—you just can’t buy it,” he told me. “If a police was walking by, and I had a big-ass bag of weed and just gave it to you with no money involved, it’d be alright.”
“Since the initial boom, there have been pop-up shops around here," Hicks added. "Mostly through word of mouth. They do it in the form of, like, donations. Or, you buy something and get some pot along with it.”
“If you really want it,” he said, “you can find some shit.”
Returning to my hotel, I opened my laptop and googled “pop-up marijuana shops in Washington, DC.” The top result came from a website called marijuanas.org, which listed several local cannabis-related events and pop-up shops, none of which offered a location.
Noticing that the vast majority of the posts were attributed to a single author calling himself “Rick Skunk,” I Googled that name to find his email address. After shooting him an introductory message, he responded in the affirmative, and said to let him know what I needed.
Well, I did, and after nearly two weeks and three follow-up emails, that was the end of it. I’d been ghosted. I considered the possibility that my questions - which mostly centered around the legality of promoting and organizing pop-ups - might have made me sound like a bit of a narc, which probably scared him off. From what I’ve gathered talking to locals, this actually seemed fairly likely.
In fact, most people were nervous to talk about the pop-up shop situation in DC in any capacity. With good reason, too. Just a week before I arrived, one such shop was subject to a police raid in which more than 30 people were arrested, according to a High Times article.
“Every single person at those pop-ups, the customers as well as the vendors, are risking arrest,” said cannabis advocate Adam Eidinger, one of the original backers of the ballot initiative that legalized cannabis in DC. I reached him via phone after returning to Canada.
Clearly, Eidinger was not a fan of the legally dubious practices behind the pop-up shops, which, in his view, are there “only out to make a buck.” He'd rather promote the 'gift-based' economy that currently exists in the district.
“Having a friend who is a local is the best way. Local people are growing a lot of cannabis, which they don’t sell. They just give it away to their friends.”
Which, I pointed out, doesn’t make it easy for someone like myself to come into the city and get their hands on some.
“This law wasn’t written for tourism,” he explained. “Our mayor, Muriel Bowser, said that she didn’t want Washington to become like Amsterdam. Which, means that when those of you in New Amsterdam [Canada] come down here, you shouldn’t be able to find marijuana very easily.”
The following day it rained. Poured, actually. Still, not feeling like I had quite given it my all, I ventured towards the National Mall, where a local Folklife Festival was taking place. I figured there had to be some kind of cannabis advocate setting up a booth there. After all, what’s folk life without marijuana?
The man at the information tent disagreed.
“We’ve got nothing like that here,” he told me sternly.
“I’m not looking to buy it or anything,” I explained, starting to feel a little embarrassed. “I was just wondering if there was an advocacy booth or something. See, I’m writing this article—”
“Right. Then you should talk to the media tent,” he said, pointing in its general direction, clearly communicating that our conversation had reached its end.
So I did. When I got there, several organizers were trying unsuccessfully to tie up the tent flap in the rain. The media woman wasn’t there when I arrived, but greeted me cheerfully ten minutes later. I asked her if she knew of any cannabis advocates posted at the festival, and she looked slightly taken aback.
“Oh, yeah, jeez,” she said. “It hadn’t even occurred to me. No. Not that I know of.”
I said thanks and exited the tent unsatisfied. It was weird. Awkward. I certainly didn’t feel as though I was asking about a legal, publicly-accepted substance. After making a few more rounds and asking a few more officials, I left empty-handed and pretty much out of leads.
So no, I wasn’t able to legally acquire pot in Washington, DC. Reading this, you might think that I didn’t try hard enough, or that I somehow failed to pick up on some subtle clue or potential alternative venue that may be obvious to others, and honestly, you’re probably right. Personally, though, I think that’s beside the point. My impression was that despite all the hubbub and publicity, the legal status of cannabis is pretty much the same as it currently stands in Canada, practically speaking. You can’t legally buy it, but if you really want it, you can probably find it without serious fear of legal repercussions.
In my view, if it’s equally difficult to find legal marijuana as it is to find its illegal equivalent, then you can probably consider your half-baked legalization experiment a failure. Hopefully, come October, Canada can do better.