A staffer plucks a cloned stem for a customer as Good Hope Hydroponics shares free ready-to-root marijuana plant cuttings, a.k.a. clones, in November. (Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post)

A grow of your very own: Nation’s capital a hotbed for DIY cannabis

WASHINGTON – In the District of Columbia, closet smokers are becoming closet growers. And basement growers. And attic growers. And on a recent Saturday, several hundred of them showed up at a specialty store in search of something to grow.

It was a free “clone share” at Good Hope Hydroponics in Washington, and the line threading around the block waiting for the ready-to-root plantings showed how many people are cultivating their own marijuana in the nation’s capital.

From young tokers to elderly first-timers to avid gardeners, the grow-your-own scene has bloomed since it became legal in 2015 to keep up to six plants at home. Some get into the technique. Others are patients looking for cheaper alternatives to the medical dispensaries, which charge premium prices for medicinal marijuana not covered by insurance. Some apparently just got bored with tomatoes.

“Interest has really spiked,” said Good Hope owner Chris Washburn, guiding the crowd amid racks of bat guano and root stimulator while marveling that the Washington area has turned into one of the country’s most open cultivation scenes within the $6.7 million national marijuana economy.

For the customers crowding his store, home growing is on par with home brewing, with a similar hobbyist vibe. The regulars swap tips, buy supplies, brag about their results.

“Dude, the thing is like a tree now,” said a man in a Redskins sweatshirt.

“You gotta spring for the LEDs,” said another, standing with a friend near the selection of lightbulbs, a bag of Happy Frog coconut-fiber soil under his arm.

“Have you checked the pH?” wondered a third. “Are you using tap water?”

By the end of the day, Washburn would give away almost 500 clones, small bits of branch donated by customers, that he cleans and makes ready for rooting. The night before, almost 20 people had filled the store for one of its weekly how-to seminars conducted by an expert grower.

Even more teaching goes on over the counter, as with the man in the pressed khakis and expensive peacoat who was quizzing an employee on which air filtration system would keep the condo association from sniffing out his bathroom greenhouse. He declined to be interviewed.

Washburn estimated that between 20 and 50 people a week come in to learn the essentials and buy the basic gear, all of them comfortable in their botanical correctness.

“For years, you could only discuss ‘tomatoes’ in the store; we’d ask you to leave if you even used the word cannabis,” Washburn said. “Now, everyone’s out in the open and new people are pouring in.”

The home front horticulture is just one (well-fertilized) outgrowth of the revolution in cannabis regulation that has swept the District of Columbia since medical marijuana became legal in 2011. More than 5,300 residents with physician-approved cards have access to five city-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries which sell cannabis from eight city-regulated cultivation centers.

In 2014, voters approved Initiative 71, making it legal for any resident to possess, smoke and give away small amounts of cannabis, an ostensibly private liberty that has exploded into a de facto open market. Residents can have pot delivered to their front porches by companies that sell them cookies, juice or other products at premium prices and include a free “gift.” Pop-up events are common at clubs around the city, where vendors set up tables and offer the same sort of wink-wink transaction. Multiple websites connect sellers and buyers.

Initiative 71 also greenlighted (or grow-lighted) the home-cultivation movement. Any resident 21 or older can grow up to six cannabis plants – three mature and three immature – which has drawn users of all kinds to try their thumbs at hydroponics.

Bron Baylor had been a regular pot user for years when it became legal to grow his own. The 24-year-old HVAC technician jumped at the chance, in part because it would keep him from the suspect pot that street dealers sometimes sold him. He started with some leftover seeds from his stash and a bag of Miracle Grow from Home Depot and, at first, sprouted nothing but some sad, bald sticks.

Now, Baylor is a true hobbyist, as into the process as the product. With a basement full of lights, filtration, fish meal, humidifiers and moisture meters, he grows not just bushy sativa and indica plants but regular crops of blue-ribbon cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and squash.

“I feel like growing cannabis actually keeps me off the streets,” he said, holding a baggie of clones he was hurrying home to plant. “I was never a gardener before.”

Belinda Cunningham, 66, has had her medical cannabis card for five years and depends on the buds and oils to stomach the 15 pills a day she takes for cancer and HIV. But dispensary prices put a strain on her fixed income, so Cunningham took a how-to class and planted a seedling.

Cannabis is a notoriously finicky plant, a reputation promoted – or some say invented – by the companies that make specialty gear and additives. But Cunningham’s was a bushy success until someone in her building – she suspects maintenance workers – picked it nearly bare. Cunningham and some other seniors found a friend with space to spare and opened a safe house grow room where she has taught several older users how to cultivate their own. She wouldn’t say where.

Related: Get tips on everything from seed sprouting to harvest

“You have to be careful,” she said. “People will steal it.”

Among those buying and growing pot in the District of Columbia are some who came expressly to do just that. A growing community of cannabis refugees are setting up residence in Washington to gain access to medical marijuana and D.C.’s other pot liberties.

One couple, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear the stigma, moved from North Carolina shortly after the 84-year-old husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and a tumor in his brain. They rented a basement apartment in Washington, obtained medical-marijuana cards and commissioned their dispensary, Takoma Wellness Center, to sell them the special extract he needs.

Now, the couple wants to grow their own cannabis, both because the vials of oil are expensive, at about $138 each, and they want to experiment with juicing the raw plants. But with cultivation still mostly a secret science, they found it hard to get started. When the wife asked agricultural extension agents for guidance via a website, they quickly begged off, referring her to D.C.’s Health Department. The agency, which administers the medical marijuana program, does not offer DIY classes.

“Most people I know are like me; they don’t know where to start,” said the wife, who never smoked, much less grew pot, while growing up. “It’s legal, but it’s not easy.”

Washburn said there are often a few older beginners in the classes offered at his shop, most of them medical-marijuana users looking to supplement their dispensary supply. But he warns that home growing may not be a cheaper option. With a steep learning curve and starter kits beginning at $300 to $500, it takes a lot of investment to get to the first good buds.

“Just because you spent the money on the equipment doesn’t mean you’re going to get a good harvest out of it,” Washburn said.

He can afford to be frank. After two years of legal growing, some of his customers have gotten so good that they are setting up as vendors at pop-up events. To his fertilizers and seedling trays, he has added a whole line of retail-style containers and labels.

In Washington, the pot business is growing like a weed.