City Paper takes a trip to D.C. to experience weed freedom

City Paper

People used to have to go all the way to Amsterdam to smoke some legal weed, but here I am, in an office/house on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., wearing a weird red smurf-looking hat and smoking a joint with Adam Eidinger, the man who can claim a lot of responsibility for the fact that this joint is entirely legal. This is one of the first times in the last 20 years that I was not breaking any law at all. 

Earlier in the day, I broke the law when I brought about a gram of weed from Maryland—where it is a civil crime for which I could face a $100 fine—and three pot cookies (gingerbread), which were still under the 10-gram limit. Still, I was slightly nervous about that criminal aspect when the K-9 unit made its rounds at Penn Station as we waited for our MARC train down to that contradictory city to the south. The dog sniffed the bench beside us and then kept going.

I broke federal law when the train crossed the district line, but, even in places like Washington, D.C., Washington state, and Colorado, which have legalized pot, the smoker is still breaking federal law, because the hypocrites in Congress and the Obama administration and the Department of Justice are content to continue allowing states to incarcerate citizens for possessing a plant which many of them have undoubtedly used.

A one-way MARC ticket cost us $7 and took one hour, as opposed to the $1,500 and 10-plus hours it would take to get to Amsterdam—and there are even a couple of Vermeers in D.C. too. So, the City Paper art team packed up our notebooks and pens and mini recorders and headed south to see what freedom felt like. We would have a long, exhausting day in the District, which would include putting the high in high art at the National Gallery (see page 24) and even an encounter, in front of the Bojangles’ at Union Station, with New York magazine Art Critic Jerry Saltz, who interrogated us about our inebriation, but it started, after we divided up one of our cookies (three for $5), at Eidinger’s house, which also serves as the office of the DC Cannabis Campaign, the group which won the weed referendum.

Eidinger is way up on Massachusetts Avenue, and as we walked up Embassy Row, we wondered if the headquarters for D.C.’s legalization campaign could really be here.

When we saw a toy skeleton propped up against the wall out front, we knew we were in the right place.

Inside, Eidinger, whose boyish face is marked by round wire-rimmed glasses and a landing-strip soul patch, and Nikolas Schiller, the DC Cannabis Campaign’s director of communications, were sitting at laptops on either side of a table, littered with newspapers and red felt hats.

“What I have in this box here is perfectly legal,” he said, opening a small box with a bag of marijuana, a grinder, some papers, and other undetermined paraphernalia. I had a vaporizer in my pocket and I took it out, loaded it, and ignited it.

Eidinger, who works for Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps as a day job, said that none of the other journalists who had come to write about the campaign had ever smoked and one claimed he couldn’t write his story because of a contact high. None of them, I thought, were from fucking Baltimore.

“You want a hit?” I asked as I handed him the vaporizer. He took but said he was a smoker and pulled out a rolling paper which he held between his fingers over the next quarter hour as he talked nonstop, letting it flap a bit in the forceful wind of the words.

D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, Eidinger said, was “a marijuana defender and someone who has surprised a lot of people by being with the people—I think because she’s born and raised she wants to maintain street cred,” though he adds that he has occasionally disagreed with her, as when she said she didn’t want D.C. to be like Amsterdam. “Really that was an insult to Amsterdam,” he said. “They did a viral campaign that the Dutch embassy published. So they trolled the mayor and said ‘let’s compare D.C. and Amsterdam,’” in ways that greatly favored the Dutch city.

“But they have places to consume cannabis and we don’t. That’s what this was about,” he continued. “They introduced an emergency bill to prevent us from having social clubs for using cannabis lawfully. But what we’re doing right now, using cannabis in this room is legal, but as soon as we go into a bar, that has a smoking area for smoking pipes, tobacco I should say, if you light up a joint, it’s not legal.”

This is the biggest drawback for Baltimore weed tourists. You really can’t go down to the District to get high unless you know someone who lives there. It is still illegal to smoke in public and there is no way to buy it. But Eidinger, Schiller, and their allies are fighting that too.

Part of the responsibility for this prohibition falls on us, anyway, because Republican U.S. Rep. Andy “Dick Hole” Harris tried to threaten the funding for the District in order to stop the will of its people from being enforced.

When I told Eidinger about our attempt to attach the name “Dick Hole” to Harris, he said, “That’s definitely Baltimore humor,” and explained that he, at one time, planned to attack Harris more directly. “If he succeeded in overturning our initiative, I was going to move to his district and run against him personally.”

Instead, they burned him in effigy—its his plastic skeleton that leans against a wall outside. “We are bastard constituents,” he says of the way that the District is treated by Congress people such as Harris and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who runs the committee which oversees affairs in the District.   

Before he lit up the joint—which he rolled with an astounding facility—Eidinger went into a long discussion of the red smurf hats on the table, which are actually Phrygian hats and play an important role both in ancient history—it was the cap that Phrygian slaves wore after they bought their freedom—and in revolutionary America. “You might wonder about these weird hats here,” he said. “This is what a liberty pole is, a pole with a hat on it. This is a Phrygian cap and it’s been around for over 2,000 years . . . before we [in revolutionary America] had a flag, this was the symbol. It went also back to the assassination of Caesar in Rome . . . but this pole started popping up in different colonies.”

As he talked Eidinger asked Schiller to print out various symbols—the original seal of the U.S., the Department of the Army—which he explained in exhaustive symbological detail, pointing out significance of the liberty pole in each. The Department of the Army seal might not be the place you’d expect to finder Escher-like infinite regress, but Eidinger does. “That’s the army flag there,” he says pointing to the flag on the seal of the U.S. Army. “And there’s another Liberty Pole on that flag and it repeats again and again and again. This is the infinite concept of freedom.”

He handed me a hat. “See if this one fits.”

And then, my vaporizer exhausted, he fired up the joint.

So here I am, legally burning a nice big joint and wearing a red Phrygian cap, which looks extraordinarily goofy on me, but what the hell, I’m down with the cause. And besides, I’m high. And the cookie is starting to kick in.

“We want to be freed slaves, smokers, who have been being locked up,” he says, noting that  marijuana laws have traditionally targeted minorities with uneven prosecution and that D.C. lives under a regime of taxation without representation.

Still, under the new D.C. law, you are, in some ways, even more free than in other places with commercial weed—at least free in the cost sense of the word. Part of D.C.’s law ensures that money does not change hands. You can possess up to 2 ounces, give away an ounce, and grow up to six plants at a time (though no more than three plants can be mature). A couple of weeks ago, the DC Cannabis Campaign facilitated two seed exchanges in which Eidinger said more than 25,000 seeds were given away.

What does that mean for weed in Baltimore when, in a couple of months, there could be thousands of free pot plants growing an hour to the south, where, conceivably, if you have friends, they could give you 10 grams at a time and you could bring it back to Baltimore without violating anything more than federal law (which all weed smokers are violating) and the civil statute against possession in Maryland?

None of the dealers I talked to had thought too much about it—since you can’t buy it there now they don’t foresee it really hurting business.

Regardless of what effect this has on Maryland, it is a definite—and even heroic—victory for freedom in D.C., as is clear when I see the dozen small, still-immature plants—half belonged to Eidinger’s fiancee—growing beside a window in an upstairs room. This was not one of those high-tech operations you’ve seen in the hidden closet grow rooms, and Eidinger entirely embraces the amateurism that D.C.’s approach encourages, using as much natural light as possible and trying to develop strains that work for the district’s swampy environment.

It is all pretty spectacular. But D.C. was able to make the move from decriminalization to legalization through a ballot measure. Maryland has no provision to introduce such measures or referenda (Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream” profiles those responsible for legalization in Washington State and Colorado, and shows how they took almost diametrically opposed approaches—except that both brought it to a popular vote and did not wait for the legislature to decriminalize). Because Eidinger is one of the few people to run a successful legalization campaign, I ask what he would do if he were in Maryland. What do we need?

His answer is pretty typical political strategy—make your enemies pay, politically attack people such as Andy “Dick Hole” Harris who oppose it. As we walk out of the house—after I give Eidinger my gram of weed, so that I can also experience the freedom of distributing this plant I’ve spent a lot of my life hiding—and step into the drizzling D.C. day, I feel enlivened, exhausted, and, ultimately, relieved to be free of Eidinger’s pull. I have done a lot of interviews, but none were more packed with words and ideas per minute than this one. And yet, he was extremely likable and compelling.

“That’s what we need in order to get legalization,” I say to my colleagues as we made our way toward the rest of our day in what could now be the district of dank nugs. “A maniac like that guy who is totally dedicated to the cause.”

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