When marijuana was legalized in DC last year, enthusiasts immediately began looking for new ways to enjoy their bud. Just as quickly, entrepreneurs scrambled to fill gaps in the new market.
Mark and Kelly (who asked that their last names be withheld) are two such ganjapreneurs. They founded Pink Fox, one of the first shops to offer edibles in DC, in December 2015.
Five months later, Mark and Kelly manned (and womanned) a booth at the first annual National Cannabis Festival. On a grassy expanse a few blocks from the Capitol, festival-goers lit up with abandon, sprawling on the grass under a lazy haze of marijuana smoke.
Customers visiting Mark and Kelly's booth could purchase Pink Fox merchandise—T-shirts, hats, drawstring bags, posters, stickers—and, of course, receive a special gift. According to DC law, you can't sell cannabis. But you can give it away.
"Nothing's for sale, of course," Mark said. "Nothing at all, ever, to stay in compliance with Proposition 71."
"But," he continued, "if there's ever something I can help someone else get, I'm more than happy to do that."
He added, "You would hope it would be a reciprocal relationship."
One festival attendee expressed interest in a Pink Fox poster—retailing for a typical donation of $10. Over the course of their conversation, Mark pulled a packet of edibles from one of the boxes stacked in the booth.
"That's a gorgonzola 'Cheez-It,' with rosemary sea salt," he explained. "Enjoy!"
Another attendee wandered over. "Can I have one of those?" she asked eagerly.
Mark laughed. "Sure." He couldn't say no—free is free—so he handed her a packet of her own.
Despite last year's law, DC has always been unique in terms of its own governance, with unparalleled federal oversight. Canna entrepreneurs know the national government could still convict them for distributing cannabis-infused products—it's why the owners of Pink Fox keep a lower profile than many budding business owners.
But the business of cannabis is booming. "You either catch up or get left behind," Mark said—and he and Kelly are willing to take risks in order to stay ahead of the curve.
In a sun-filled building a few blocks from a well-traveled metro stop in DC a few weeks later, Mark and Kelly were hard at work. They measured ingredients—chocolate, peanut butter, marijuana-infused butter—on a digital scale and mixed them together for a snack dubbed "Fox Rocks."
"We buy more butter than Paula Deen," Mark joked.
"When people say 'What do you do?' I'm like, 'I bake and clean,'" Kelly said. "It's very glamorous."
Mark and Kelly were coworkers laid off on the same day. They'd experimented with edibles for personal consumption, and decided to embark on a new entrepreneurial endeavor together. Kelly does more of the culinary work, while Mark heads up marketing and customer service.
"Kelly is the mad scientist in the kitchen," Mark said. They offer the standard cannabis-infused cookies and brownies, but they're also looking to push the boundaries of edibles with more gourmet options. They have versions of classic stoner snacks, like mini Pop-Tarts and the Cheez-It—an item they call Yelps, answering the question of what the fox says. And they offer sea salt caramels, muffins, and a dessert they describe as "churro brittle."
Pink Fox donors like edibles because they are more discreet than smoking and, well, classy.
"They don't want to cough, they don't want to smell like it," Mark said—especially parents and athletes. "It's a gorgonzola Cheez-It with pancetta salt," he said. "You're not gonna have to eat this chalky substance to get your medicine. This is something you want to have, and it's a really accessible way to have it."
Each client sets the amount of their donation for, say, a Pink Fox drawstring bag—accompanied by an edible of their choice. All prices are suggested donations in exchange for merchandise, Mark and Kelly hasten to add—all in accordance with DC's Initiative 71.
Mark and Kelly see their work as a force for good. "You feel like you're talking to someone that you genuinely want to help," Mark said.
Yet marijuana is still illegal on the national level. Are they not worried at all?
"Yeah, we're worried," Kelly said.
"I'm not," Mark countered.
"I mean, you have to be concerned," Kelly argued. "Because it's a Schedule I drug still."
"Is it?" Mark asked. "Technically, sure. But they've created this weird bubble that we all have to live in together. There is a very gray area that allows us to operate. And there's a clear tide turning in America. I don't think there's anything to be afraid of anymore."
Kelly is more cautious. "It would be naïve to say there's not a threat still," she said. Their disagreement represents the larger conversation cannabusiness owners are having in the United States. Will the industry soar past the billion-dollar mark, or will the next administration clamp down on the reefer madness?
Kelly's caution is not misplaced. Last year, the flamboyant owner of another DC edibles business, Kush Gods, was arrested for accepting donations for products containing cannabis. Pink Fox, in contrast, offers branded merchandise for donations. And some people simply buy the merch, Mark and Kelly said; Pink Fox will have a table at Tee Con, a convention devoted to T-shirts, later this month.
For the most part, Mark and Kelly eschew flashy marketing; unlike the ostentatious Kush Gods vehicles, you won't find a weed-themed car parked around Pink Fox HQ. In fact, donors never visit the kitchen.
"We don't let anyone come here," Kelly said. Instead, they meet clients in public places; metro stops around the city provide easy access and safety. There are, they point out without a trace of irony, plenty of security cameras around to make customers feel safe. But, of course, they won't leave DC. The permissive atmosphere around pot dissipates as soon as you cross the border into Maryland or Virginia.
Next, the founders of Pink Fox would like DC to legalize the sale of cannabis products.
"We want to be legitimate," Kelly said. "We want the blessing of the District. To say, 'Go ahead, tax.' Let's regulate this. Let's open up some retail shops. Let's become part of this industry that is growing at a very rapid rate. We can't be a state; why can't we just have this?"
Not surprisingly, the turbulence of a quasi-illegal industry makes it hard to plan for the future.
"That's the biggest challenge," Mark said. "Waiting for these—for lack of a better word—clowns to catch up to us."
"Marijuana is not one-dimensional anymore," Kelly explained. "It doesn't mean a bunch of burned-out people hiding out in someone's garage or basement. It's a robust industry that has depth, and is clever, and is going to make a lot of money for a lot of people."