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Virginia’s gray marijuana market is booming

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THC-saturated pancakes, Tupperwares of bud: Companies make it work in the unregulated gray market

Demetrius Robinson smokes weed with his brothers during a Coastal Cannabis Club event in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Demetrius Robinson smokes cannabis with his brothers during a coastal cannabis club event in Chesapeake, Virginia (Parker Michaels Boyce for The Washington Post)

Suspension

sOn a party bus next to his son and a vacant pole, Erik Jorgensen, 62, ran his thumb over a hand-drilled pipe and passed it to a woman sitting next to him.

“Believe me,” he said loudly. “Every hit you get from this will astound you.”

Jorgensen, a longtime woodworker, carved over the years into jewelry boxes and scratched the back. He had stopped smoking pot when his sons were born, to set a good example. But now Jorgensen’s children have grown up and married, and Virginia’s laws have changed.

So on a damp Friday evening in July, he bounced along the back roads of Chesapeake, Virginia, on his way to the Canaveresare event marking the one-year anniversary of Virginia becoming the first state in the South to legalize property ownership. When the bus stopped, he carried his art up the stairs to a tree-lined setting as vendors lined up tables with pies filled with THC and Tupperware containers filled with buds for sale and display.

“It’s like the Wild West,” Jorgensen said.

While marijuana is legal in Virginia, recreational sales are not, leaving people eager to smoke with few legal options to get their hands on, and entrepreneurs eager to work within the law who are increasingly fed up From working in the shadows. For cannabis startups across the state, navigating Virginia’s gray area requires creativity and a blatant willingness to push boundaries as they watch lawmakers debate this year over how best to create a legal market framework.

This means pop-up events, growing seasons, apparel products, and creating memorable brands with whimsical logos that customers already know once there is a legal avenue for sales.

“We’ve been successful in identifying what the word is for a cannabis business in Virginia,” said Liam Perkins, owner of CCC Events, host of Cannaversary.

Tension over how to operate a legal marketplace for a substance previously heralded as a narcotic gateway to heroin is not new. A decade later, Colorado and Washington became The first to legalize recreational marijuanaDiscussions continue about how to develop and organize the sale of something readily available in the shadows. Even states with legal markets have struggled to eliminate the influence of unlicensed sellers. in California, The illegal market is too wide and the taxes are too high That legal operators struggle to compete.

But the struggle of wanting to enter that market — and the obstacles to doing so legally — reverberates nationally. More countries Move to legalize the entertainment bowl.

Perkins would love to get a license once Richmond lawmakers create a framework for legal dispensaries.

In the meantime, there is money to be made.

When Virginia embarked on Destiny last summer, Perkins, 32, He decided to celebrate his first big party. Sellers and DJ called. Smoke filled the air as a few hundred people celebrated the legislation. He thought he could make a business out of it – a members-only social club for cannabis consumers to connect and enjoy the new legal plant together.

Perkins, who has been in media and marketing, feels confident that his work is compatible. He advertises publicly on social media and insists that it operates fully within the confines of the law. Everything the club does is private. Every adult.

Perkins knows there are other pop-up events and vendors around Virginia Beach with less regard for the rules. He can go rogue and only hopes the police will have other things to worry about, but he also knows that distributing more than 1 ounce of marijuana, but less than 5 pounds, It is a fifth degree felony in the Commonwealth.

Captain Rio Hatfield, the Virginia Beach Police Department of Special Investigations, said the department is aware of pop-up markets and businesses like Perkins, and that while some are not complying with the law, police are not looking for sellers. They mainly work from complaints, and First it aims to educate people about complex laws.

“It’s certainly difficult because ‘if this, then, if this, then’ it is,” Hatfield said. “It’s not just that this is generally illegal.”

In many states, recreational legalization and marketing occurred at the same time, opening the door to a lucrative new market. Like the gold miners who set out west over 150 years ago for a chance to find fortune, Entrepreneurs “Green Rush” They fled to the early legalization states on the West Coast, hoping to gain a slice of the new market.

For now, only Virginia has authorized Personal possession of up to one ounce of hemp and grow up to four plants.

Virginia General Assembly Certification passed in 2021 as a bill that was originally scheduled to enter into force in 2024. Then-Gov. Ralph Northam (Democrat) sped up and signed the bill, bringing the plant fully legalized on July 1, 2021. But sales didn’t begin until 2024, giving the legislature time to develop a regulatory framework for the new market.

After Democrats, who have advocated legalization, lost control of the state Senate and the governor’s mansion last fall, legalization has become one of the most anticipated debates during this year’s legislative session. Advocates argued over who should get the billion dollar industry first; Lobbyists have appealed to lawmakers to create a licensing framework and speed up the timeline for legal sales to start this year. Nothing has passed, and Virginia’s marijuana market remains in limbo.

“Without a legal market, Virginians interested in legal cannabis use are at risk of unsafe and unregulated products,” said Senator Adam Eben (D-Democrat of Alexandria), who sponsored this year’s major legalization bill and was frustrated with the legislature’s inaction.

Perkins said that entrepreneurs who try to explain the rules are often left with more questions than answers. What can he say? What should be avoided?

Salesman Richard Anderson, who uses the nickname “Fez,” said the answer is to keep clamoring.

Fass, who said he sold pots nearly 25 years ago, now shows up at about four pop-up events a week, his table covered with pre-rolled joints, plastic containers filled with flowers and small jars of rosin — thick cannabis often smoked. by experts and sells for a $120 container.

“Man, those primers are good,” he told a couple browsing his table at an event earlier this summer. “It’s made in Virginia, too.”

Fez, 46 years old He said he was not concerned about law enforcement. He has been arrested before.

“Fearful money doesn’t make money,” he said, leaning behind his table.

There is a lot of money to be made for those entering the legal market. Legal cannabis sales reached $19 billion in 2020, and are expected to swell to $41 billion by 2025, According to Wall Street Coin, a research firm.

But the way Virginia establishes its legal market — and how long it takes to make a decision — will shape who benefits.

“Before regulation and even now, most people would probably buy it from someone black or brown,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, CEO of Marijuana Justice, which advocates for a fair cannabis industry in Virginia.

Higgs Wise pushes Virginia to implement social justice programs and licensing practices that will prioritize communities historically affected by the war on drugs. According to the Civil Liberties Union, blacks More than three times more likely to be arrested For possession of marijuana as a white people.

Sitting in a café in the capital, wearing “legitimize it right” earrings curved around each side, Higgs Wise urged people to remember that there are two sides to the old market – people who sell and people who buy.

“If they are still in business, that means there is still demand for them,” Higgs Wise said. We have to understand that legalization is also a cultural movement. Not only will people turn to a legal dispensary because the law has changed.”

When certification came to his home state, Nick Austin, owner and founder of Royal Family Cannabis Co. In Virginia, an opportunity to bring his business home after working in and out of the pot industry since 1998, and moving from state to state.

Though, rather than hosting events like Perkins, Austin found success in the gray market by teaching growth techniques and building a brand.

“I’m really trying to get into the market one way or another,” Austin said.

At Cannaversary, he proudly carried a printed sheet of all the strains of the pot he had grown to show to a member. He unpacked a mason jar with nuggets of flowers in it and inhaled them through his nose—smelling the compound aroma of cherry-lime soda.

“I’m tired of hiding in a closet,” Austin said. “I’m tired of lying about what I’m doing.”

But even with a functioning legal market in Virginia, Austin realizes that it will likely be difficult to obtain a legal license. When the country launched its medical program, it was just Five licenses granted To serve the entire state, many of them were awarded to out-of-state companies.

“It’s an industry where you want to feel safe, but you’re only safe if you pay $10,000 for a license,” said one vendor, who asked not to be named. “It’s really unfair because it might get to the point where people who are inferior to the totem pole actually don’t get a chance. Even if they are good.”

Even in states with a route to legal recreational sales, the illicit market continues to thrive because high tax rates, limited licenses and oversaturation make competition difficult. Other parts of the country have seen the emergence of a gray market similar to that in Virginia. after, after New York was approved last yearAnd the unlicensed gray market It appeared in the city as lawmakers set the framework for legal dispensaries.

Even outside of Virginia, in the nation’s capital, the gray market is thriving. District of Columbia voters passed recreational marijuana in 2014, but Congress, which has federal oversight in the capital, Regulatory plans shattered and pot is still illegal to sell. Instead, businesses are taking advantage of the convenient app by opening “gift” stores where, through a legal loophole, customers can purchase a lighter, mask or motivational wordAnd get a free “gift” of cannabis when you buy it.

but this year, City leaders tried to remedy the gifting loopholewhere stores operate mostly informally and take business out of medical dispensaries.

Perkins has hosted dozens of events since that first event. It welcomed over 200 members to the club in its first year. The club hosts events such as “blowing and paint” and “wine and weed” nights for people to come together and enjoy the newly legalized items.

At Cannaversary, Jaynie, 57, who spoke on the condition that her last name was not used, sat under the tent eating tacos. Member of the club for more than a year, smoked cannabis for more than 30 years.

“We love them,” Jenny said of the events. “I mean, look around. It really is a cool, calm, cool crowd.”

Behind her, the event began to fade. The band kept showing up, but the crowd of about 150 people started to fade as the sun went down.

Jenny said she has a Virginia medical card, but prefers to get weed from juveniles and secret sellers she trusts.

They were there decades ago before legalization. It will be a long time after that.

Grow guide for marijuana beginners.
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