It’s a cold January night and I’m trying to find a cannabis speakeasy in the nation’s capital. It isn’t easy. I’m in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, just north of U Street. I’ve been given an address, but from the outside it looks like an Indian or Thai restaurant. This must be the place. I descend a set of steps to an underground entrance and walk into a dark and hazy room.

Inside, through an exhale of smoke, I can see many of the regulars in the DC cannabis scene. The guys from Funky Piece are offering dabs behind a table, the DC Scroger is here sporting his signature mirrored shades, and I recognize Charles from the Reschedule 420 event, explaining “terps” to a newbie. There’s product aplenty. Among the familiar faces, I see sheets of rosin, prepackaged edibles, and a half-dozen dab rigs. A young woman holds a cannabis clone in a red Solo cup. In her backpack are small bottles of home-infused juices. Corey C-Dub, known as the Mayor of DC, booms out to me over the crowd noise. “Ayeeeee!” he says. “Welcome to the Hash Bash.”

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This is the cannabis scene in Washington, DC, as the Obama administration leaves town and the Trump administration arrives: small, robust, semi-legal, and still largely underground.

More than two years after the citizens of the District voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, the city remains caught in a local–federal limbo. District officials want to roll out regulations to allow possession, use, and sale. Federal officials, who continue to deny local citizens the dignity of home rule, refuse to allow any legal regulation to proceed.

The rules, as they’ve evolved over the past two years, remain hazy and ever-shifting. DC residents are permitted to grow their own cannabis and to give it away, but they’re prohibited from buying or selling it in any amount. For those wanting to establish their own legal cannabis companies, there are scant rules, no regulations, and no protection from federal law enforcement. For consumers, there are no stores and zero quality assurance.

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But there is one strange upside to all this legal confusion. DC’s cannabis community has grown into one of the nation’s tightest groups of activists and consumers. The crowd here is incredibly tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone, which I’ll later learn can be both a blessing and a curse. But on a wintery night at the end of the Obama era, in a secret speakeasy below the DC street, everyone’s sharing and no one’s caring and it’s all very, very good.

DC’s 4,200 Joint Protest

DC pot activist Adam Eidinger sports a keffiyeh in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and a Liberty Cap, outside his home in northwest DC on Sunday, January 15, 2017. The portable jail cell is a prop Eidinger says will be on display during a protest on Inauguration Day. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)

I lived in this city once upon a time, working behind the scenes as a congressional staffer. With the Trump inauguration looming, I returned to my former home base to meet with its cannabis leaders and get a sense for how they’re surviving and thriving during the transition—and what they expect to come down on Jan. 20.

One thing that’s coming down: a lot of free joints.

Adam Eidinger, leader of the local activist group DCMJ, has for weeks been promising a great joint giveaway in the middle of Trump’s inauguration. DCMJ organizers want to hand out 4,200 free joints—an act that’s technically legal within the District, as long as they’re not on federal land. In a city that’s checkerboarded with dozens of federal law enforcement jurisdictions, that can be more challenging than it sounds. The group is encouraging its 4,200 joint recipients to spark up exactly four minutes and 20 seconds into Trump’s inaugural address.

To carry out the plan, though, first they’ve got to roll 4,200 joints.

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On a snowy afternoon, I dropped by Eidinger’s house, known as “Embassy Weedonia,” on Embassy Row. A handmade “prohibition cage,” with a sign that says “Jail is Not a Drug Policy,” sits in his yard, buried in snow.

Inside, several DCMJ volunteers sat near a cozy fire, rolling joints for the big event. I took a seat around the table and joined the rolling crew.

Eidinger explained that he wanted each joint to contain three different strains of homegrown cannabis. Three large bags of cannabis sat out, labeled “DC Inaugural Weed.” One contained fairly high quality homegrown buds, while the other two were filled with shake.

“I had about a pound and a half that I could give away,” Eidinger told us, referring to dried flower from his homegrown plants. He pointed to the table. “These two bags were donated—all DC. I know all the growers, I saw the plants being grown. We’ve all been growing here for two years and we’ve been loving it.”

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Elizabeth Croydon, a DC comedienne and former candidate for Congress in Maryland’s Eighth District, talked about how long she’d been involved with the group. “I’ve been protesting with Adam for 17 years,” she said as she passed a freshly rolled joint around the circle. “Nothing can stop me from railing to see this economy take off. It’s time for civil disobedience.”

“We would like to call this demonstration off,” said Eidinger,“because it is going to be disruptive.” But the show would go on, he said, unless President-elect Trump assures the American public “that no one who lives in a marijuana-liberated state is going to have the government breaking down their door.”

As we spoke, I rolled my best cone joint. Eidinger looked over and critiqued my work. “That’s a nice-looking joint,” he said.

Meanwhile, reporters and photographers from media outlets around the world wandered in and out, taking photos, shooting video, and asking questions. Eidinger frequently stepped out of the room to answer phone calls from other reporters. Weeks before the event, DCMJ was already reaping worldwide attention for its cause.

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The Only Constant Is Change

Rico Valderrama, also known as "Phone Homie" is a pot activist and podcast host in Washington, DC. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)
Rico Valderrama, also known as “Phone Homie” is a pot activist and podcast host in Washington, DC. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)

A lot can change in a few months.

I visited DC in April 2016 to cover the Reschedule 420 event. Back then I found a community filled with joy, love, and camaraderie. Upon my return eight months later, I discovered there’d been a shift in attitude within the subculture. Money had become a contentious force. Without a legal means to buy or sell cannabis, it’s nearly impossible to establish a legally operating cannabis business. That’s led to frustration, tension, and conflict.

I discussed the change with Christine V. Edmond, copy editor and content manager at Cannabis Business Executive. “When you came here last time, everyone was all love and ‘kumbaya,’” she said. “Now people fight all the time, mostly about money.”

“People are creating their own market.”
Christine V. Edmond, Copy Editor, Cannabis Business Executive

The 2014 legalization vote was initially praised as a moment of great progress. But after more than two years of obstruction from Congress, would-be entrepreneurs are struggling to get by. People are creating their own loopholes in the law—some real, some imagined—to stay afloat.

“People are creating their own market,” Edmond told me knowingly.

The community here is so close-knit that it can be both a blessing and a curse. There are friends who squabble over who owes whom what. There is still an undercurrent of unease, an unwillingness to share secrets. And, as is the case in some other cities—most notably Toronto and Vancouver—there’s tension between the District’s few licensed medical cannabis dispensaries and those who have no way to enter the industry legally.

As Rico Valderrama, a local activist and podcast host, put it: “We are all players in a very small backyard.”

A Fine Line of Legality

Davis Kiyo, founder of Myster, at his home in northwest Washington, DC (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)

658,000 residents live within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. They’re surrounded on all sides by states that maintain wildly varying cannabis laws. It’s a short drive from downtown DC to Northern Virginia, but cannabis possession on one side of the bridge will result in a $25 ticket. On the other side, it’s 30 days in jail. In another direction, across the border in Maryland, the state technically has a medical marijuana law in place. But due to numerous delays, there’s still no access to medical cannabis there.

It can be tricky—and hazardous to one’s legal freedom—to provide any sort of cannabis product outside the District.

“We are all players in a very small backyard.”
Rico Valderrama , Radio Host, Phone Homie

Take the case of Davis Clayton Kiyo. Kiyo, the entrepreneur behind the popular Myster brand of accessories, first became involved in 2013 after recognizing an opportunity to elevate cannabis accessories above, in his words, “plastic baggies taken out of a shoebox.”

A few months after establishing his product line, Kiyo opened a Myster storefront in Bethesda, Maryland. Not long after, he opened a second outlet on Georgia Avenue in DC proper.

Business went well. After legalization hit DC in late 2014, Kiyo’s storefront became a site for the District’s famed seed giveaways. “We’ve held multiple giveaways,” he told me. “We had three last year. What we’re trying to do is spread our genetics through DC.” The genetics he is referring to are two hybridized cannabis strains specific to the District – Mumbo Sauce and Crystal City Kush.

As Kiyo continued to expand his business, one of the products his Myster shops began carrying was a line of CBD vaporization cartridges. The CBD was extracted from hemp. At the time, the cartridges were assumed to be legal under federal law, so long as the oil contained less than 0.3 percent THC.

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Law enforcement officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, thought otherwise. In January 2016, undercover officers visited the Bethesda shop to purchase the CBD oil, which was then tested and found to contain 2.9 percent THC. Under the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act of Maryland, Kiyo was arrested and charged with two felonies, including possession of cannabis with intent to distribute. He also had his personal bank account seized. Officials raided his parents’ house (where the business was registered), arrested two of his employees, and seized $53,000 worth of inventory.

Kiyo and his company, Myster, spent most of 2016 tied up in court. “It put the company at a standstill, in scramble mode so we could continue to operate.” Kiyo said.“They tried to put us out of business.”

But Myster survived, in part because of the support of the community. “We did a couple of different fundraisers with a huge turnout, like four or five hundred people. Luckily, our customers and our community have really come together to help us get past this slump. We’re going to be okay,” Kiyo smiled. “They’re going to have to do a lot worse to stop us from doing what we’re doing.”

Although the Bethesda location remains closed, the Myster shop on Georgia Avenue is still open for business and hosting cannabis seed giveaways. The company’s sleek StashTray saw a spike in sales after being featured by NowThis as a gift idea during the holidays.

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Rico Valderrama, also known as "Phone Homie" is a pot activist and podcast host in Washington, DC. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)
Rico Valderrama, also known as “Phone Homie” is a cannabis activist and podcast host in Washington, DC. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)

On my last night in DC, I sat in on the live studio broadcast of The Slab Hour, DC’s popular weekly cannabis-focused podcast. The host, Phone Homie (née Rico Valderrama) is one of the District’s most vocal and outspoken cannabis advocates. At the Reschedule 420 event last year, he was the first to light up at 4:20. Most recently he joined DCMJ, along with Philadelphia cannabis advocate N.A. Poe, to visit with Sen. Jeff Sessions’ staff members.

The meeting caused quite a disturbance among Sessions’ staff, who were convinced the group had every intention of lighting up in the congressional office. “I proceeded to roll up a joint and they repeatedly said ‘Don’t you dare!’, while I assured them that I would not, that I would never,” Valderrama informed us of the meeting. In order to sneak cannabis past the front door, Poe had cannabis hidden in his sock, while Valderrama kept a cannabis bud hidden in plain sight on his suit’s lapel.

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The broadcast originated in a recording studio that boasts two giant speakers out front broadcasting throughout DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.  A lazy river of smoke drifted through the room at eye level. Sporadic coughs peppered the background noise, amid the click-hiss of propane torching glass dab rigs.

In between pre-recorded segments from local news, past cannabis events, and clips from Reefer Madness-style propaganda videos, the hour-long segment featured Phone Homie and sidekick, ConRon, discussing the latest in political and pop culture news while “terpin’ it up” with hot dabs.

This particular segment discussed the upcoming plans for handing out joints during the inauguration, as well as the latest political news. ConRon took the initiative to explain the importance of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, just reauthorized until April of 2017, and how it protects cannabis-legal states from action from the DEA, while Phone Homie discussed the flack he received from the online community, particularly Reddit, after bringing cannabis into Sessions’office.

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He ends the show with the same line every time, “That’s one small dab for man, one giant slab for mankind.”

After the broadcast, Valderrama sat down with me to discuss the changes in the community within the past eight months.

“It’s been interesting, I think people have definitely been sitting around trying to figure out how to market their work,” he said. “People are trying to find different creative ways to stay afloat and stay alive.” There seem to be more cannabis-related events than ever, he said, but legally “there’s nothing cemented that says, ‘This is okay.’”

“And now the biggest question is about the transition of power and [attorney general nominee Jeff] Sessions coming into office,” he added. “Do we stand to lose everything? Will we have to go back into the shadows again?”