No cannabis sales, but here’s a free gift with your $82 cook­ies

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The grey-bearded man ar­rives at the car park in Wash­ing­ton car­ry­ing a small white box. Af­ter check­ing some ID, he hands over the pack­age: a stack of six choco­late chip bis­cuits that costs US$60 (NZ$82) plus tax and de­liv­ery.

Then, lean­ing in as if to share a con­fi­dence, he says: ‘‘We are giv­ing free gifts to­day with our de­liv­er­ies. Would you be in­ter­ested in a com­pletely free gift that comes with your or­der?’’ An af­fir­ma­tive nod pro­duces a gift bag – and, within it, the real point of the deal.

In­creas­ingly, such sur­rep­ti­tious ex­changes are the way by which mar­i­juana smok­ers are get­ting their fix in Amer­ica’s cap­i­tal, where ‘‘pot-preneurs’’ are ex­ploit­ing, legally, the city’s byzan­tine drug laws.

Wash­ing­ton and eight US states have le­galised recre­ational mar­i­juana for res­i­dents above a cer­tain age. How­ever, thanks to a quirk of the law, get­ting hold of it re­quires an elab­o­rate rit­ual. Adults over 21 are al­lowed to pos­sess up to two ounces (56 grams) of cannabis, but it is il­le­gal to buy or sell it as a ca­sual user. It can only be dis­bursed as a gift.

For years, city of­fi­cials have ad­vo­cated le­gal­is­ing sales, which they es­ti­mate could gen­er­ate US$100 mil­lion in taxes by 2020. How­ever, much of the city’s bud­get is con­trolled by the US Con­gress, and tax pol­icy must be ap­proved on Capi­tol Hill – and Repub­li­cans are re­fus­ing to al­low Wash­ing­ton to pro­mote le­gal mar­i­juana sale poli­cies.

A grey mar­ket has sprung up to cir­cum­vent the no-sell­ing rule. From ex­pen­sive cook­ies to paint­ings of politi­cian Bernie San­ders, ven­dors can plau­si­bly plead that they are fol­low­ing the law and pro­vid­ing some­thing ex­tra on top of the wares they sell.

Tick­ets to fit­ness classes, par­ties and craft fairs are an­other route. A ‘‘Morn­ing Mar­i­juasana’’ yoga class hosted by the Golden Pineap­ple stu­dio, aimed at women, costs be­tween US$20 and $200 (NZ$27 to $270).

‘‘This is the grand ex­per­i­ment,’’ says Joe Tier­ney, who runs a web­site that re­views lo­cal mar­i­juana ser­vices. ‘‘No other place in Amer­ica has done le­gal­i­sa­tion with­out com­mer­cial reg­u­la­tion, so what you see is what’s emerged when peo­ple are left to their own de­vices.’’

To Tier­ney, the elab­o­rate busi­ness dis­guise for recre­ational mar­i­juana sales is a ben­e­fit be­cause it is ‘‘a way of us­ing cannabis to pro­mote other things’’.

One of the best-known de­liv­ery ser­vices in the city was founded by four deaf artists, who give cannabis to buy­ers of their art­work. A lo­cal rap­per called ‘‘Pott’’ uses it to sell al­bums.

The prac­tice has even squeezed med­i­cal mar­i­juana providers, who must go through ex­pen­sive li­cens­ing and pro­cure­ment pro­cesses to set up shop but are only al­lowed to sell on the premises.

‘‘It’s hard for us to com­pete with home de­liv­ery,’’ says Vir­ginia West, a man­ager at one five dis­pen­saries.

Some of her col­leagues are lob­by­ing the city to change the rule, West says. ‘‘A lot of our pa­tients would re­ally ben­e­fit from that.’’

Li­cens­ing does come with pro­tec­tion. Not long af­ter pos­ses­sion be­came le­gal, two sellers who worked for the de­liv­ery ser­vice Kush Gods, which ex­changed mar­i­juana for ‘‘do­na­tions’’, were ar­rested.

Ar­rests for sell­ing the drug in Wash­ing­ton have climbed, from about 80 in 2015, when pos­ses­sion be­came le­gal, to more than 300 this year.

Be­cause mar­i­juana is still il­le­gal un­der na­tional law, of­fer­ing such gifts on fed­eral land is pro­hib­ited.

The long-term goal, ac­tivists say, is still to change the drug’s fed­eral sta­tus. At least seven bills have been in­tro­duced in Con­gress to fur­ther lib­er­alise mar­i­juana pol­icy.

Un­til then, it will be US$150 (NZ$205) for the straw­berry lemon­ade with ‘‘lots of love’’, please. of Wash­ing­ton’s


Po­lice ar­rest pro­test­ers smok­ing mar­i­juana near the steps of the US Capi­tol in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Deal­ers in the city are giv­ing the drug away as a gift with pur­chases of food, paint­ings and other goods, to get around a ban on recre­ational cannabis sales...

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