Washington DC’s Cannabis Scene Braces for the Trump Era

A Fine Line of Legality

Davis Kiyo, founder of Myster, at his home in northwest Washington, D.C. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)

658,000 residents live within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. They’re surrounded on all sides by states that maintain wildly varying cannabis laws. It’s a short drive from downtown DC to Northern Virginia, but cannabis possession on one side of the bridge will result in a $25 ticket. On the other side, it’s 30 days in jail. In another direction, across the border in Maryland, the state technically has a medical marijuana law in place. But due to numerous delays, there’s still no access to medical cannabis there.

It can be tricky—and hazardous to one’s legal freedom—to provide any sort of cannabis product outside the District.

“We are all players in a very small backyard.”

Rico Valderrama , Radio Host, Phone Homie

Take the case of Davis Clayton Kiyo. Kiyo, the entrepreneur behind the popular Myster brand of accessories, first became involved in 2013 after recognizing an opportunity to elevate cannabis accessories above, in his words, “plastic baggies taken out of a shoebox.”

A few months after establishing his product line, Kiyo opened a Myster storefront in Bethesda, Maryland. Not long after, he opened a second outlet on Georgia Avenue in DC proper.

Business went well. After legalization hit DC in late 2014, Kiyo’s storefront became a site for the District’s famed seed giveaways. “We’ve held multiple giveaways,” he told me. “We had three last year. What we’re trying to do is spread our genetics through DC.” The genetics he is referring to are two hybridized cannabis strains specific to the District – Mumbo Sauce and Crystal City Kush.

As Kiyo continued to expand his business, one of the products his Myster shops began carrying was a line of CBD vaporization cartridges. The CBD was extracted from hemp. At the time, the cartridges were assumed to be legal under federal law, so long as the oil contained less than 0.3 percent THC.

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Law enforcement officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, thought otherwise. In January 2016, undercover officers visited the Bethesda shop to purchase the CBD oil, which was then tested and found to contain 2.9 percent THC. Under the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act of Maryland, Kiyo was arrested and charged with two felonies, including possession of cannabis with intent to distribute. He also had his personal bank account seized. Officials raided his parents’ house (where the business was registered), arrested two of his employees, and seized $53,000 worth of inventory.

Kiyo and his company, Myster, spent most of 2016 tied up in court. “It put the company at a standstill, in scramble mode so we could continue to operate.” Kiyo said.“They tried to put us out of business.”

But Myster survived, in part because of the support of the community. “We did a couple of different fundraisers with a huge turnout, like four or five hundred people. Luckily, our customers and our community have really come together to help us get past this slump. We’re going to be okay,” Kiyo smiled. “They’re going to have to do a lot worse to stop us from doing what we’re doing.”

Although the Bethesda location remains closed, the Myster shop on Georgia Avenue is still open for business and hosting cannabis seed giveaways. The company’s sleek StashTray saw a spike in sales after being featured by NowThis as a gift idea during the holidays.

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Rico Valderrama, also known as "Phone Homie" is a pot activist and podcast host in Washington, DC. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)Rico Valderrama, also known as “Phone Homie” is a cannabis activist and podcast host in Washington, DC. (Greg Kendall-Ball for Leafly)

On my last night in DC, I sat in on the live studio broadcast of The Slab Hour, DC’s popular weekly cannabis-focused podcast. The host, Phone Homie (nee Rico Valderrama) is one of the District’s most vocal and outspoken cannabis advocates. At the Reschedule 420 event last year, he was the first to light up at 4:20. Most recently he joined DCMJ, along with Philadelphia cannabis advocate N.A. Poe, to visit with Sen. Jeff Sessions’ staff members.

The meeting caused quite a disturbance among Sessions’ staff, who were convinced the group had every intention of lighting up in the congressional office. “I proceeded to roll up a joint and they repeatedly said ‘Don’t you dare!’ While I assured them that I would not, that I would never,” Valderrama informs us of the meeting. In order to sneak cannabis past the front door, Poe had cannabis hidden in his sock, while Valderrama kept a cannabis bud hidden in plain sight on his suit’s lapel.

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The broadcast originates in a recording studio that boasts two giant speakers out front broadcasting throughout DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.  A lazy river of smoke drifts through the room at eye level. Sporadic coughs pepper the background noise, amid the click-hiss of propane torching glass dab rigs.

In between pre-recorded segments from local news, past cannabis events, and clips from Reefer Madness-style propaganda videos, the hour-long segment features Phone Homie and sidekick, ConRon, discussing the latest in political and pop culture news while “terpin’ it up” with hot dabs.

This particular segment discussed the upcoming plans for handing out joints during the inauguration, as well as the latest political news. ConRon took the initiative to explain the importance of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, just reauthorized until April of 2017, and how it protects cannabis-legal states from action from the DEA, while Phone Homie discussed the flack he received from the online community, particularly Reddit, after bringing cannabis into Sessions’office.

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He ends the show with the same line every time, “That’s one small dab for man, one giant slab for mankind.”

After the broadcast, Valderrama sat down with me to discuss the changes in the community within the past eight months.

“It’s been interesting, I think people have definitely been sitting around trying to figure out how to market their work,” he said. “People are trying to find different creative ways to stay afloat and stay alive.” There seem to be more cannabis-related events than ever, he said, but legally “there’s nothing cemented that says, ‘This is okay.’”

“And now the biggest question is about the transition of power and [attorney general nominee Jeff] Sessions coming into office” he added. “Do we stand to lose everything? Will we have to go back into the shadows again?”

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