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Despite D.C. Legalization Push, Police Raids Persist For Unlicensed Cannabis Shops


While D.C. lawmakers forge ahead with efforts to legalize recreational cannabis sales, police in the nation’s capital continue to crack down on businesses that use a “gifting” loophole to sell cannabis in the District. 

Last week, more than a dozen police officers descended on a storefront called House of Herbs in D.C.’s Park View neighborhood, seizing cannabis and arresting one person in the process. 

The Metropolitan Police Department told The Outlaw Report that the raid, which was authorized by D.C. Superior Court Judge Jonathan Pittman, was carried out in the evening hours of May 12 after police received a tip that the store was operating as a cannabis shop. 

“An officer received a complaint about an illegal dispensary at the location,” wrote an MPD spokesperson in an email on Tuesday. “An investigation was started which led to the issuance of a search warrant.” 

House of Herbs opened its doors last March on Georgia Avenue, according to a post by local blog Popville. The store, which bills itself as an “Initiative 71 compliant” tea shop, advertises a variety of cannabis products online that come “free with a tea purchase.” 

Initiative 71 is the D.C. law that since 2015 has allowed adults to legally grow, possess, consume, and give small amounts of cannabis provided “no money, goods, or services” are involved in the transaction.

Many D.C. businesses rely on Initiative 71’s “gifting loophole” to sell cannabis while avoiding legal repercussions. At these “gray market” dispensaries, customers buy t-shirts, decorative plants, or myriad other legal goods that cost the price of the cannabis they then receive as a gift.

While some storefronts tread carefully, operating on a word-of-mouth basis, others are more brazen, openly advertising cannabis products online and selling them at public pop-up events. One startup takes the loophole even further by delivering $60 “motivational speeches” that come with cannabis.

D.C.’s “gifting economy” has thrived under Initiative 71. But MPD has in recent years stepped up enforcement against gray market dispensaries. (As a reminder, licensed medical dispensaries in D.C. can legally sell cannabis to cardholding patients.)

Intense police raids on storefronts have become increasingly common, sometimes leading to serious issues for business owners. Earlier this year, The Outlaw Report wrote about a Georgetown storefront that had to relocate after being raided by police twice in the span of two months.

The door-busting raids, sometimes executed in broad daylight on busy neighborhood streets, are reminiscent of the SWAT team operations that have killed and injured dozens of civilians throughout America’s decades-long War On Drugs. 

MPD said no one was injured during the May 12 raid on House of Herbs. However, police charged Malik Sneed, a 26-year-old man from Southeast D.C., with a felony offense for Possession With Intent To Distribute Marijuana.

Sneed, who is not listed as a business owner for House of Herbs, was released on a citation. He will need to appear in court for the felony charge, MPD said. 

Distributing half-a-pound of cannabis or less in D.C. can lead to a prison sentence of up to 180 days and a fine of $1,000. A subsequent offense could lead to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Courts may seek longer sentences if larger amounts of cannabis are involved, or if the individual has a criminal background.

However, a 2019 investigation by NBC4 found that more than 80% of raid charges end up getting dismissed in court.

MPD declined to comment on the amount of cannabis seized during the House of Herbs raid. “The specifics of the evidence collected are not being made public at this time,” a spokesperson said. 

Rick Smith, an employee at All The Buzz, an apparel store that gifts cannabis up the street, said he witnessed many police cars and a K-9 unit outside the store on May 12. 

He was surprised House of Herbs got raided just a few months after opening: “That was kind of shocking,” Smith said.

All The Buzz has steered clear of law enforcement since it opened in August of 2020. Smith said keeping close compliance with Initiative 71 is crucial to avoid legal problems. “We follow the rules to a T,” he said. “We don’t play around.” 

For example, Initiative 71 limits the amount of cannabis that can be legally gifted to one ounce or less, and makes it a crime to possess more than two ounces.

Still, he said it’s unclear why some cannabis shops are targeted by police while others cruise by. “There must be something that brings that on,” he said. “If [police] wanted to raid, they could raid every day, you know?” 

Smith said some cannabis businesses attract robberies, which can draw negative attention from police and the community. “If the neighborhood is complaining or you’re bringing in aspects that they don’t want, that could be a problem,” he said.

He anticipates that D.C. will soon legalize recreational cannabis sales, and that shops like his will need a city permit to operate legally. 

“At the end of the day, the laws are getting ready to change,” he said. “Everybody’s going to fight for the licenses they put out, and then I guess this world is over.”

The owner of House of Herbs did not return several requests for comments from The Outlaw Report about the raid. As of Wednesday, the storefront was not answering phone calls.

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