Why Washington DC Police Are Cracking Down on Cannabis ‘Gifting’

Published on February 1, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
People crossing street on Pennsylvania avenue in downtown with National Archives building

For nearly seven hours on a muggy Saturday last August, hundreds of people paid $10 apiece to enter Uneeda Nichols’ Southeast D.C. home, where 10 vendors had set up inside with flowers, concentrates, ready-to-smoke bongs and more. Nichols says she wasn’t aware her address was circulating on social media, printed on a flyer advertising $5 “gas mask” and bong hits and “complimentary strain sampling”–but Metropolitan Police were.

Metro Police bought tickets, bought cannabis, then brought the hammer down.

“They stayed outside, they watched all the vendors bring their stuff in, they bought tickets at the side of the house, and they came,” Nichols said, referring to undercover officers who surveilled her home for six hours before entering with nearly $100 apiece to purchase marijuana.

Minutes after they left, police raided the house, confiscating $22,808 in cash, nearly eight pounds of marijuana and more than 34 pounds of edibles, along with Nichols’ grow of 43 plants, according to an arrest report.  (Nichols says only 10 of them were harvest-ready, and all of them were for “educational” or personal use.) She was charged with marijuana cultivation, distribution and possession; seven others were hit with distribution and possession charges.

“They took everything,” Nichols, a medicinal patient in the District.

Raids at Homes, Bars, Restaurants

In the last few months, sources tell Leafly local authorities have raided a growing number of cannabis events at private homes and bars and restaurants around the city. On Jan. 20, cops arrested 22 people at XO Lounge downtown, seizing 17 pounds of flower, 10 pounds of edibles and two quarts of oils.

'I chuckle when I think about people believing that the law can be so easily gotten around. Clearly it cannot.'

One week earlier, they busted an event at Vita Lounge in Shaw, arresting one person and seizing more than three pounds of cannabis, along with edibles, oils and $1,181 in cash, an arrest report confirmed. And on Dec. 22, 2017, police shut down an event at The Elroy on H Street, taking five containers with an unspecified amount of flower, the department confirmed.

In 2014, D.C. residents passed the Initiative 71 ballot measure, legalizing home grow of up to six plants, possession of up to two ounces and gifting of up to an ounce of marijuana. Congress blocked the city from spending any money to regulate sales of the plant, but allowed the ballot measure to become law. Days after it took effect, D.C. lawmakers enacted an amendment banning so-called cannabis clubs, prohibiting consumption at bars, restaurants and other public spaces.

Gifts and Dab Bars

What’s evolved is an underground economy relying on semi-discrete transactions where consumers buy non-cannabis items for roughly the same amount they would spend on their weed, and receive the latter as a “gift.” Often venues will allow guests to smoke or take dabs on site.

Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Leafly such events amount to “scam operations.”

“I chuckle when I think about people believing that the law can be so easily gotten around,” he said. “Clearly it cannot. Police simply have more important work to do most of the time, so they haven’t focused on trying to identify and weed out those people those people who are in fact illegally selling marijuana in the District.”

“But they clearly are beginning to spend more time doing that, at least from what I hear from media coverage,” Stroup added.

Police: We Respond to Complaints

Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Rachel Reid said police haven’t launched any recent initiatives to crack down on or target cannabis events, but are simply responding to residents’ complaints.

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“I don’t think we’ve changed the way we’re trying to address this now. We respond when we get complaints from the public,” she said.

The department said in a separate statement: “Our officers will take action when matters like this are brought to our attention. Following a number of community complaints, we have directly responded to such reports and have handled them appropriately.”

Penalties for Allowing MJ Use

Police coordinate much of their enforcement at bars with the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), Reid said. ABRA awards liquor licenses to businesses, and investigates consumer complaints and liquor-law violations, among other duties.

When asked for a count on the number of marijuana-related complaints ABRA has received, agency spokesman Max Bluestein said “we don’t track our records in that manner.”

Bluestein did share with Leafly a July 2016 letter from the city’s Department of Health to business owners, reminding them of the penalties “if a food establishment that has an alcohol license is facilitating or allowing the use of marijuana.” A bar or restaurant can face a fine of $1,000 to $30,000, suspension or revocation of its alcohol license, or be deemed “unfit for licensure,” which could preclude renewal of a license or stop the owners from getting a new license in the future.

Loss of Crop and Cash

Nichols said the raid on her home left her in dire straits. Police seized all of her crop and cash – some of it from a car accident and not cannabis, she said – and the felony charges against her have made it very difficult to find work. Her case is awaiting a grand jury hearing, court records show.

To make matters worse, her elderly uncle for whom she was serving as a caretaker suffered a heart attack during the three days she was detained, and died one week later in the hospital, she said.

In her case, she was hosting an event at a private residence. I-71 did not explicitly prohibit so-called pot parties, where a resident invites others to her home to consume, but it did prohibit sales of cannabis.

An arrest report from Aug. 19, when they raided Nichols’ home, notes police saw two people collecting money at a side gate, and vendors inside exchanging edibles, flower and more for cash.

Bottom Line: You Can’t Sell Cannabis in DC

Adam Eidinger, the D.C. cannabis activist who helped draft I-71, previously said in an interview that such events are illegal if any money is involved. “I don’t care if it’s in your house, you’re still selling the cannabis,” he said.

Legal tip: If it's a private event, you must keep it private. Don't put up flyers and let a crowd gather outside.

The District isn’t alone in dealing with private events as a law enforcement issue. Kevin Mahmalji, NORML’s national outreach coordinator and a Denver resident, said some hosts in his city use only Eventbrite – avoiding cash exchanges – as an invitation medium for cannabis parties. But even then, “some of the events are creeping up to 50, 60, 70, 80, 100 people. That’s getting the attention of local authorities.”

Stroup, NORML’s defense counsel, said the size of the crowd can mean a world of difference. Particularly with a circulating social media invitation, he said, “you can create quite a large event that you claim is private, but of course it’s not really private.” Police would “without question” have cause to enter if a crowd was building outside, he said.

Ideally, he said, D.C. would have Congress’ blessing to regulate its cannabis economy and avoid the troubles of an underground market, where people flock to bars and private homes to pick up or consume.

“But until we get there, we would urge people to follow the law,” he said. “At least for those people who are sort of getting ahead of where the law is and selling marijuana under one of these scams, I would urge them to be cautious, because you are breaking the law. There’s no doubt about it.”

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Ethan McLeod
Ethan McLeod
Ethan McLeod is a Baltimore-based journalist currently serving as senior editor for Baltimore Fishbowl. In addition to cannabis, he enjoys covering local politics, infrastructure, music, and basketball. His work has been published in Baltimore City Paper, DCist,and CQ Researcher.
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