Pubdate: Wed, 27 Apr 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Lavanya Ramanathan


David Umeh's rented SUV yanked to a halt in front of the 
glass-and-steel facade of City-Center DC, glitzy home to Gucci and 
Dior and Hermes and the next customer of the marijuana revolution.

A young woman slid out the passenger side and strode up to a man 
still dressed in the sharp gray suit of a Washington nine-to fiver 
waiting outside the center's tony apartment building. He grinned as 
she handed him a bottle of apple juice with lemon and mint, for which 
he had shelled out upward of $55. "Fresh-pressed," she told him, 
sticking to the script that Umeh had taught her.

And then she slipped him the green paper sack that held what the man 
had probably really wanted all along: a few pungent grams of 
District-grown bud, a "gift" from Umeh's company, High-Speed, for his 

You know, thanks for being a loyal customer and paying $55 for apple 
juice and whatnot.

Since January, High-Speed has been hawking, according to its website, 
"the finest cannabis (and cold pressed juice) delivered in record 
time" - its explicit sales pitch just part of the new world order 
under the city's Initiative 71.

That tepid, neither-here-nor-there measure, implemented in February 
2015, made it legal for anyone 21 or older to possess up to two 
ounces of marijuana. You can grow as many as six plants. And you can 
"transfer"- without payment - up to an ounce of weed to another adult.

But here's the rub: Unless you have a medical marijuana card, you can't buy it.

And that creates a strange gray area that has lit a fire under 
entrepreneurs such as Umeh, who sees dollar signs in the loop-hole 71 
left behind. Which is: If residents can't buy or sell pot, and have 
no inclination to grow marijuana in their already slightly funky 
Columbia Heights apartments, how can they get it?

Why, through that "transfer" clause, say HighSpeed and others.

High-Speed customers pay for jalapeno or charcoal lemonade, or just 
plain OJ, then decide whether they want "love" for $55, or "lots of 
love" for $150. What exactly that buys you is deliberately left 
unclear. (If you want just juice, well, you can get that, too: It'll 
set you back $11.)

"We are a juice-delivery service," Umeh insists. Every day, he says, 
at least 40 orders come in, proof that the stigma around marijuana is 
rapidly going up in smoke.

On April 20, or 4/20, the national holiday of stoners everywhere, at 
least eight drivers carrying precisely the amount of "love" they are 
allowed to legally possess made the rounds, dropping off bottles and 
little green sacks bearing indica and sativa - the two primary 
cannabis strains - homegrown in the capital city.

Shad B. Ewart teaches a class on entrepreneurship in the emerging 
cannabis economy at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. The 
challenge for the companies hoping to cash in, the business professor 
likes to tell his students, is finding "islands of legality in a sea 
of illegality."

Go on, search for Washington on the marijuana-locating website 
Weedmaps. It will pull up a handful of services, from dispensaries to 
doctors to delivery companies, convinced that they've found their island.

"You know when you get thrown in the 12-foot pool, and you're in 
third grade?" asks Umeh.

That's what it's like to be David Umeh right now. A man in over his 
head. And a man determined not to drown.

We're settled at a conference table in the Penn Quarter co-working 
space Impact Hub, which, like other such spaces, is one part office, 
one part social gathering ground for millennial go-getters and 
start-up employees. Umeh, a 25-year-old Californian, tends to wear 
ballcaps, eat Chipotle and haul his MacBook around in a 
hipster-endorsed Herschel backpack. He fits in perfectly.

"They love me here," he says. ( Yeah, of course they do.)

Outside Impact Hub's sandbox, the city has quickly proved to be the 
deep end for Umeh.

Since a publicist contacted local media outlets earlier this month, 
the demand has been so great that it has drained HighSpeed of its 
inventory nearly every day. Umeh has had to shut down orders simply 
to catch up on deliveries. Customers are tweeting at the company, 
wondering where their weed - oops, juice-is.

And some of the local pressed-juice brands that he has been 
delivering as demand has surged are unamused to see their bottles on 
Instagram next to marijuana. Ann Yang, co-owner of Misfit Juicery, 
which Umeh was buying retail and delivering to his customers last 
week, said that she explicitly told Umeh that her company didn't want 
to partner with High-Speed because of the fuzzy legality of its 
business model. Umeh says he doesn't believe that he is doing 
anything untoward, but said that he's already making preparations to 
press his own High-Speed-branded juices.

The District is a far cry from Oakland, where Umeh launched HighSpeed 
last summer and where what is and isn't legal is far clearer. 
High-Speed was just one in a sea of medical marijuana delivery services there.

"My first customer," he says with a touch of pride, "was a guy in a 

But Umeh also found California, where medical cannabis has been legal 
since 1996, saturated, all the nuggets of the marijuana gold rush 
already snapped up.

Friends from Virginia's Hampton University, which he attended for a 
few years as an economics major, told him that Washington's law could 
open up another sort of opportunity.

It would, however, require "a pivot," Umeh recalls. He couldn't 
deliver medical marijuana. But he could sell juice.

And maybe he could gift cannabis.

There are others like Umeh, of course, trying to fly clear of the 
D.C. law, flout it, or something in-between.

This month, CakeLove founder Warren Brown, a former Food Network 
celebrity chef, teamed up with two food truck entrepreneurs to 
announce their entry into the marijuana edibles market. They've said 
that their market will be the city's highly regulated medical 
dispensaries, which serve a few thousand customers doctor-approved to 
use pot for pain management and other reasons.

Last year, Kush Gods rolled luxury cars emblazoned with cannabis 
leaves into busy neighborhoods such as U Street NW, offering "gifts" 
in exchange for "donations." It was ultimately targeted by D.C. 
Police, which said Kush Gods was basically just selling marijuana. 
(Company founder Nicholas Cunningham pleaded guilty to that charge last month.)

That exchange of money for drugs seemed like a clear quid pro quo, 
says Ewart. What High-Speed does isn't quite the same, but Ewart 
isn't convinced of its long-term viability.

A few weeks ago, Ewart ordered a jalapeno lemonade with a side of 
"love" from HighSpeed. When Umeh himself turned up at his door days 
later, the professor invited him to suburban Annapolis to talk to his class.

Asked what he thinks of High-Speed's business model, Ewart sighs. 
Umeh has had to find sources for the marijuana he gifts, and then he 
must cut deals that can't involve any exchange of money. How, Ewart 
wondered, can he maintain that as his customer base blooms?

Umeh, he says, is "kind of pushing the envelope here, but he's 
pushing the envelope because the District of Columbia has left this a 
mess. There is a gray area here, and so you're having these 
entrepreneurs attempt these things." But $55 juice? "I think they're 
on the edge of what's legal," says Ewart. "Where's the limit?"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom