One Wednesday morning this autumn, an entrepreneur in her mid-40s found herself alone in her house in a suburb just outside Washington, DC. Her children were at school. Her husband was away on government work. The sun was beautiful, the air crisp and it seemed the perfect day to try the marijuana-infused cookies that came inside a backpack she had purchased outside a metro stop downtown.
The entrepreneur, we’ll call her Bea, had used marijuana in her early 20s, but nearly two decades as a government employee had left her ill-acquainted with the edible products of today. She ate one cookie, which, according to a postcard included in the backpack, contained 75mg of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychotropic substance in cannabis. What came next was different from the mild, goofy high she remembered. Within an hour she was overwhelmed, curling into a foetal position in her bed, wishing desperately that she had not eaten the whole cookie. The hours ticked by and she realised, with horror, that her children would return from school to find their athletic, sociable mother high as a kite. “I couldn’t string two sentences together,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I could stand up and make dinner.”
Bea was hardly alone. The company she bought her knapsack from, Pink Fox, was so busy the Monday afternoon she made her purchase that they were turning away customers. In this seemingly buttoned-up capital city, backdrop to a conservative-controlled government famous for its embrace of heartland values, everyone seemed to be getting stoned.
Recreational marijuana has been legal in Washington since 2015, when the government passed Proposition 71, a law which allows an adult to keep as many as three mature plants at home and to carry up to two ounces with them in public. The law has had two big effects. First it dramatically reduced marijuana-related arrests, which fell from 1,840 in 2014 to just 32 in 2015. Second it has put weed back into the hands of the straight-laced wonks and political operatives who have long eschewed it for the sake of their careers.
But its implementation has been rocky. While they were unable to block legalisation, conservatives in Congress used their power over the metropolitan budget to block the city from regulating marijuana or creating the conditions for a legal market. Giving cannabis as a gift is legal, but selling it or using public funds to test supplies for strength and purity are not. This has led to a booming underground market in home-grown weed. Legions of entrepreneurs – or “ganjapreneurs”, as they like to be known – have set themselves up as vendors of cheaply produced tchotchkes like T-shirts or flimsy backpacks like the one Bea bought for $100, and then throw in marijuana as a present. This has caused problems. “If someone is giving marijuana to you,” says Kate Bell, a lawyer for the Marijuana Policy Project, “you don’t know if they screwed up their home-grow or sprayed it with toxic pesticides.”
Many, like Bea, were in for a surprise. Rico Valdorama, a former marine, who, in addition to designing clothes and hosting a radio show, organises marijuana-themed events, has seen his share of overwhelmed neophytes. Though there have been no known deaths from marijuana, too high a dose can cause anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and fluctuations in blood pressure that make standing up risky. Valdorama has seen a marine go out of her mind and a strapping lobbyist keel over after inhaling THC concentrate, hitting his head on a concrete floor.
Adam Eidinger, one of the people who campaigned for the law and drew up the bill, believes that Proposition 71 is only the beginning. As people become more familiar with marijuana – especially its health benefits for people with conditions like arthritis – he believes a proper market will be created and that fresh cannabis leaves will be sold in supermarkets subject to the same regulations as salad. “Five years from now it’s going to be on sale at Whole Foods”, he says.
In the meantime, the answer has been self-regulation. “You have to work to understand people’s tolerance levels and help them choose a dose that’s right for them,” Valdorama says. Lisa Scott, a 53-year-old caterer, figures she’d cooked for 300 bar mitzvahs and as many weddings before she tried her hand at baking with marijuana three years ago. The only way to get dosage right, she soon found, was to sample generously. “There is no legal way to test these products,” said Scott, who in addition to sweets, infuses savoury nuts, honey, wine, butter and even roasted beetroot with cannabis, cultivating image-conscious, upper-class clients.
The week after Bea’s first experiment with cannabis, she took a more measured approach. She nibbled a quarter of a cookie and went to meditate in a flotation tank – a dark, closed capsule partially filled with salty water. She emerged an hour later full of ideas for her startup and a little bit surprised at where life had taken her. “I was just cracking up thinking I’m a mom in my 40s and I’m stoned and floating in saline hoping to think differently about my projects.”