If you happened to be walking down 18th Street in Washington, DC on Thursday, you would have noticed an unusually long line of people patiently waiting outside of a bar on an otherwise quiet afternoon.
"Its almost as if they're giving away free weed in there," a passerby remarked casually.
That is, in effect, exactly what was happening.
Cannabis for personal use became legal in the nation's capital a month ago. To celebrate the milestone, the DC Cannabis Campaign — the group that helped push the voter-approved legalization initiative — organized the city's first ever "seed share," which was hosted by a small absinthe bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Hundreds of people waited for hours to enter the bar and give away seeds, obtain them from others, or just see what a truly free and legal marijuana share looks like.
"This is an experiment in democracy — and horticulture," a man in line, who did not want to give his name, told VICE News.
Adam Eidinger, the chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign, told VICE News that about 2,000 people had RSVP'd for the event, which he attributed to "huge grassroots support."
Under Initiative 71, adults 21 and older can possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow between three and six mature plants in their home, depending on the number of adults in the household. DC residents cannot, however, legally sell buds, plants, or seeds — only "share" or gift them.
In other words, you can smoke your pals up (in the privacy of someone's home) and dole out as much as an ounce of the chronic to a friend, but you can't legally exchange money, goods, or services for it.
This is where Thursday's seed exchange comes in.
"We know that not everyone has friends who have seeds available to share," the DC Cannabis Campaign said in a statement announcing the endeavor, which was intended to "facilitate personal home cultivation of cannabis permitted under the new law."
Inside the absinthe bar, the atmosphere buzzed with barely contained excitement. Dozens of people who had brought seeds set out their offerings on tables and freely handed out baggies to people passing through.
Only adults 21 and over were permitted into the venue, no one could carry more than two ounces of cannabis (including seeds) at any time, and most importantly, no money or goods were allowed to change hands inside while sharing seeds.
Alex Jeffrey, executive director of the marijuana reform group DC NORML, told VICE News that members of his organization arrived at the event with "thousands of seeds" that they were happily giving away without problem.
"It's been really chaotic, but it's been amazing to see all these people that showed up," Jeffrey said. "Everyone is abiding by the law, and everyone is having a good time."
Individuals were also chipping in seeds and joining the fun.
"I have plenty of my own, so I figured I'd share the wealth," a man who gave his name as Ty told VICE News. "Nothing in exchange. I figured I'd just share the love."
Pot growers handed out pamphlets explaining how to successfully plant and grow cannabis seeds, and a pizza place across the street got in on the action by giving out free slices.
Thursday's event was billed as the first legal seed exchange, and it will be followed by a second share event on Saturday at the headquarters of DC Cannabis Campaign.
Yesterday's attendees were keen to note that it was another element of the emergent "sharing economy" that has been popularized by companies like Uber and Airbnb, and could make a dent in the illegal drug market.
"It's a gifting economy. It changes the dynamic of the space," Eidinger said. "The people who are sharing seeds also have the belief that we need to end the underground economy."
Taxation Without Representation
To other attendees, however, the event was less about marijuana legalization and more about DC's authority to create its own laws. As a federal district, the capital's local laws are subject to congressional oversight.
"This is about self-determination, freedom, and liberty," DC resident Kurt Moriah told VICE News while waiting in line.
"This has always been about [DC autonomy] for me," a native Washingtonian named Eric remarked. "We're the last bastion of taxation without representation," he added, referring to the fact that DC does not have voting representation in Congress.
An overwhelming 70 percent of the city's voters approved Initiative 71 last November, but the mandatory 30-day congressional review period was contentious, as opponents of legalization on Capitol Hill blocked funding to prevent the measure from being enacted.
This is why there is no mechanism in the city to regulate or tax cannabis as originally planned. City officials were defiant, however, arguing that legalization had been enacted by the approval of voters. When Initiative 71 became law in late February, the awkward arrangement effectively created the nation's first unregulated cannabis zone.
The lack of regulation might be disquieting to some, but Eidinger is not worried about it.
"There is no strain of marijuana that is deadly," he said, adding that many people who use medical marijuana, which DC legalized in 2010, prefer to grow their own but do not know where to legally get seeds. "So if you have absolutely no access to seeds and you can't travel, you're low-income, this is a really cool event for you."
The gray area surrounding weed in DC is unique. In states that have legalized marijuana such as Colorado and Washington, marijuana is highly regulated, tracked, and taxed extensively.
This will likely end up happening in DC as well, said Eidinger. City lawmakers expect to set up a system that would tax legal marijuana and allow for the creation of dispensaries once Congress passes a new spending bill without a rider attached to it that bars funding for regulation.
"Right now it's like the wild west," a young man named Tyler told VICE News. "Hopefully Congress will see that they should at least control it in some way."
Those looking to make money off of a nascent cannabis market in DC, meanwhile, are lying in wait.
"There are a lot of businesses looking to cash in on this industry," a legalization advocate named Daniel Lily told VICE News at the event. "The reality is they are standing on the backs of a lot of activists who have fought and worked very hard to push this message through."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928
Photos by Olivia Becker/VICE News