(Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images file)

With no legal weed for sale in D.C., black market ‘is the obvious choice’

WASHINGTON — Not long ago, a man who had covertly dealt pot in the nation’s capital for three decades approached a young political operative at a birthday party in a downtown District steakhouse.

He was about to test a fresh marketing strategy to take advantage of D.C.’s peculiar new marijuana law, which allows people to possess and privately consume the drug but provides them no way to legally buy it for recreational use. Those contradictions have created a surge in demand and new opportunities for illicit pot purveyors.

“Do you like cannabis?” asked the dealer.

“Yes,” answered the man, who had recently left his job as a Republican Senate staffer.

So, the dealer recalled, he handed his new acquaintance a tiny plastic bag that contained half a gram of “Blue Dream,” a sweet and fruity strain of marijuana. With the bag he also presented a business card and an offer: If you like what you try, call me.

Within days, the man — now a lobbyist — picked up the phone.

The dealer — who, like others interviewed, requested anonymity because what they do remains illegal — said he has used that same in-plain-sight sales pitch at similarly upscale District settings, collecting three new buyers and a pair of new suppliers. The new business is all thanks to the quirks of D.C. legalization, which has boosted the appetite for marijuana as more people become comfortable acquiring it through the black market.

“It’s the dealer-protection act of 2015,” he said. “This was a license for me to print money.”

Who is responsible for this unintended consequence depends on whom you ask.

In November, Washington voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative that made it legal to possess and grow marijuana, but the following month, Congress enacted a spending prohibition that barred D.C. from creating a system through which pot could be lawfully bought, sold and taxed.

That means there are only three ways for people in D.C. to legally obtain marijuana.

Someone can give it to them, though the donors, of course, must find their own original source. Residents can each grow as many as three plants to maturity at one time, though that process is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. And with a doctor’s approval, people can get medical-marijuana cards, though supply remains dismal.

“The black market is the obvious choice,” said a 24-year-old government contractor who deals part time. “It’s awesome.”

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who has led Congress’s charge to thwart legalization in D.C., blamed city leaders, insisting that they should have forbidden possession when he and other lawmakers prevented Washington from creating a controlled marketplace.

“There’s no question that demand will go up, and there’s no legal source of supply,” he said. “Clearly, this was not thought out rationally by the city government, which chose to go forward with legalization without regulation.”

John Falcicchio, chief of staff for Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, sharply countered that assertion.

“In D.C., it shouldn’t be called the black market. It should be called the Harris market,” he said. “If there’s any uptick in the black market, it’s thanks to Harris.”

Keep reading: One prediction for D.C. pot is that “regular people are going to turn into small-time dealers.”

This story was first published on WashingtonPost.com