Nicholas Paul Cunningham, Kush God founder, stands next to his vehicle in Washington. Kush God says his business only takes donations for handing out weed. He is still involved behind the scenes, despite a recent conviction for distribution. (Ashleigh Joplin, The Washington Post)

D.C.’s Kush God pot peddler: Is he a scam artist or martyr for the cause?

WASHINGTON — The man who calls himself Kush God is conflicted.

Normally, he wants all the attention he can get. In big, bold letters, he has plastered “Kush Gods” on what police describe as his “fleet of Kush Gods vehicles.” He named his daughter Freedom Kushgod. He juggles two phones and a bunch of social media profiles featuring “Kush Goddesses” striking languid poses on a Kush Gods Mercedes. Media requests are usually accepted on one condition: Cameras must be present.

But these days, Kush God, the most controversial member of the District’s marijuana movement, is a guarded deity. He is coming off a recent conviction in the District for distributing marijuana out of his luxury sedans in return for what he called monetary “donations.” When Nicholas Paul Cunningham, as Kush God is also known, takes to the streets to run his enterprise, he checks to see if the police are watching. Often, they are.

The drama has echoes nationally. Even in states where marijuana is legal to use and sell, people are testing the boundaries of the laws. Last year, Washington state outlawed marijuana clubs, some of which provided pot for donations and demanded millions in unpaid taxes. In Colorado, operators on Craigslist get around marijuana taxes by providing “free” weed to people who tip heavily for the service; police have been known to conduct stings on the practice.

In the District, where the possession of marijuana is legal but commercialization is not, Cunningham’s business — Kush Gods — tries to exist in the space between. The brazenness of his company, which he says has five employees, has divided the city’s marijuana community, igniting lengthy Facebook debates over the merits of his operation.

“Some people say he’s an interloper from far away who is trying to exploit the law,” said Nikolas R. Schiller, one of the organizers behind the campaign that legalized marijuana in the District. “Others say he’s a martyr fighting for a plant.”

Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was less equanimous. Calling Cunningham a “scam artist,” he said he was gladdened by his legal troubles. “I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for the Gods. I think they’ll be put out of business for a long time.”

It is a logical assumption. The terms of Cunningham’s probation ban him from all things Kush. He must stop operating the Kush Gods business and has until April 21 to remove the marijuana insignia from his fleet of four luxury cars or take them off D.C. streets. If he does not, he faces 180 days in jail.

But Cunningham said he is not stopping anything. In fact, he said he has devised a work-around. From now on, he said, only his goddesses will take donations and dispense the marijuana, and he’ll oversee them and focus on expansion and diversification. His hands won’t touch a thing.

And so, two days after he pleaded guilty March 21 to two counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, Cunningham idled on Connecticut Avenue NW in a Kush Gods Mercedes. His tinted windows were rolled up. The parking meter had expired. Passersby gaped at the vehicle. Cunningham, sitting in the driver’s seat and wearing big, black sunglasses, talked big about the future. He compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. He said something about funding breast cancer research. He said he was meant to do this. “I’m trying,” he said, “to build a dynasty.”

To a certain degree, some advocates say, Congress helped create Kush Gods. When D.C. residents voted to legalize marijuana in November 2014, most proponents assumed that a system of regulation and taxation would rise to govern marijuana commerce, which is what happened in Colorado and Washington state. But Congress, which has federal oversight over D.C. affairs, stymied regulatory plans, leading to the current stalemate.

“We can expect to see different efforts to meet the demand until there’s a legitimate system,” said Mason Tvert, an official with the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for the regulation of legalized marijuana. “This stems from a lack of a legally regulated system.”

But Mark Kleiman, a New York University professor who studies marijuana policy, said regulation isn’t a cure-all. “If the District had taxes, there would be someone evading the taxes,” he said.

In the District, a Columbia Heights T-shirt vendor is said to provide a “gift” of a bag of weed to people who tip him well. Another person launched a corporation to order deliveries of homegrown marijuana for donations to the company. Craigslist teems with marijuana “nonprofits” looking for donations in exchange for “gifts.” “Nothing is for sale,” one Craigslist ad admonished.

Marijuana joints
(RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

But the boldest of these operations has been Kush Gods. Cunningham first rolled into town via a Kush Gods Mercedes last August — his phone number plastered to the side of the vehicle — lured from Los Angeles by the prospect of big money. When word trickled back to his mother, Tracy Cunningham, in Birmingham, Ala., she said she wasn’t surprised. Her son, she said, has always resisted authority and reveled in the attention of others.

“At first, I was like, ‘You’re going to do what?’ ” she said. “But then, when I thought about it, I was like, ‘Okay … My son — he is his own man.’ ”

Money was tight when he was growing up, she said. Cunningham’s father abandoned the family soon after Cunningham was born, so it was just mother and son getting by in a rough neighborhood in Birmingham’s inner city. Crime and drugs were snatching boys left and right, so Tracy put Cunningham into football, where he excelled, inculcating in him an extreme confidence that persists to this day. She likes that about him. But she said it has also gotten him into trouble.

He clashed with football coaches in high school, who she said didn’t recommend him to scouts, and he ultimately spent time on the bench at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Within a few years, troubles mounted with the coaches there, and Cunningham quit the team — and college — and ended up working at his grandfather’s cosmetology store, bringing in $300 a week.

Grinding it out for small money was not how Cunningham wanted to lead his life. So he headed to California in search of his destiny.

Pot-fueled discovery

That destiny had a name: Kush.

It came to him during a moment of self-exploration two years ago. Cunningham had moved into an apartment in the San Fernando Valley and, he said, paid the rent through some freelance work producing and writing music for local artists. But he felt untethered. So to clear his head, he turned off the television for six months, disconnected from social media and secured a stash of pot.

Rica Madrid poses for a photograph as she smokes a joint in her home on Feb. 26, 2015, the first day adult marijuana possession became legal in Washington, D.C. (Alex Brandon, Associated Press file)

He recalled it thusly: “I was doing a lot of weed smoking. OG Kush smoking,” he said, referring to a potent strain of marijuana. “Lot of edible eating. Just brainstorming. … And I was at home smoking a blunt just sitting up thinking.” He added, “It was immediate — I thought of it. That was it. It has been done since then.”

He said he stopped paying rent and then, with the money he saved, adorned a luxury sedan he bought in Alabama with marijuana leaves, his phone number and the words “Kush Gods.”

Left unmentioned in his origin story: Last April, court records show, Los Angeles authorities charged him with possession of marijuana with intent to sell. Before the case was resolved, Cunningham skipped town for the District.

It was summer. Donations were pouring in. And Cunningham — now considered a fugitive from justice thanks to the California case — soon had a fleet of Kush Gods vehicles. He started hiring.

One employee was Marquita Curtis, 21. She quit her job at Chipotle to work for Cunningham, and she describes herself on social media as “Kita Kush the Kush Goddess.” She sometimes models for Kush Gods in photo shoots for its social media accounts, but mostly she sits in one of Cunningham’s vehicles, collects donations and counts the money. Cunningham calls her his “budtender.”

“This was a godsend. I was on the verge of being put out and losing custody of my kid, and I was going through a lot at that time. … This has definitely not just changed the community, but my life,” said Curtis, who makes $15 an hour and said the weekly donations to Kush Gods hover around $5,000. (Cunningham disputed that estimate, placing it somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000.)

Another hire was Lexi Eiland, 25. She once worked as a receptionist at Unity Health Care in Southeast Washington but was laid off in November 2014. By the following summer, her unemployment checks had run out, so one day, she headed to a U Street consignment store to sell some clothing. That was when she spotted one of the Kush Gods cars. Eiland learned that Cunningham was hiring someone to manage one of his vehicles.

She said that before Cunningham’s conviction in the District, they didn’t hew as closely to the law as they do now. “We made some adjustments,” Eiland said. Kush Gods no longer immediately presents a consumer with marijuana after a donation, and it sets up a separate location for the exchange. Everyone must sign a form saying the money is strictly a donation. “So everything is okay,” Eiland said.

But is it? Authorities may decide that Cunningham’s continued involvement in the business violates the terms of his probation. Plus, none of the budtenders’ wages are taxed, and neither are the donations. “We haven’t done any retail sales yet,” Cunningham said of the apparent delinquency. “Everything we’ve done has been giveaways.”

Those issues, however, didn’t seem to concern Cunningham on March 30 as he peacocked before his Kush Gods car in the afternoon sun on Connecticut Avenue. He said he will still hit the streets every day. And as for the police? Is he worried they will dismantle Kush Gods?

“People want to come interview me [after] seeing the police coming up and harassing me,” he said. “They’re not hurting my business at all. If anything, they’re giving me free advertisement.”

Ashleigh Joplin and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.