Even after he was violently thrown to the ground, a pistol thrust in his face, Hani’s opinion of weed pop-ups hasn’t changed: “It’s a blessing. I thank God.”
The marijuana gray market gave him an opportunity he never expected to have. Growing up in Southeast D.C., Hani has long dealt with severe medical issues, and he first became homeless when he was just a boy, only 12 years old. “I came from nothing—no money, no nothing, sleeping on the streets,” he says. “My teacher used to tell me that I’m not going to make it. That I’d be six feet under.” He’s cycled in and out of homelessness ever since. Hani’s gotten by on a combination of hard work and open-handed kindness that’s earned him friends willing to help out. And until recently, he did most of that hard work on a slew of odd jobs, like selling Christmas trees during the holidays at Eastern Market.
Then, about three years ago, Hani started working for weed pop-ups. Within a year, he was running his own business in the “gray market,” in which vendors sell people legal goods and then “gift” them marijuana to go with the goods. Hani sells his art and jewelry, T-shirts and stickers, and gifts cannabis and CBD (which Hani is particularly passionate about).
As an entrepreneur, he says that in a night of work, he makes two, three, even five hundred dollars. “Who makes $300 a day in my situation?” he asks. “It can change lives … It got me where I’m comfortable enough that I can buy some shoes, or I can buy the next homeless guy some dinner.” He regularly hosts what he calls “peace concerts” (benefits that fund school supplies for low-income children), and he dreams of opening his own brick-and-mortar one day. “I would love to open a computer café,” he says. “Where you can come and get your tea, your coffee, your hot cocoa. Little danishes. And CBD.”
Hani says the gray market put him in a position where he can provide for himself, and for strangers in need. But recently, it’s been a more painful sort of love: The industry, he thinks, has quickly become far more dangerous than it used to be.
He was robbed for the first time about a year ago, after a pop-up party at a house in upper Northwest. (Hani, better known by his vendor name Black Egyptian, requested his last name be left out of this article.) “That was a good night,” he recalls. “The first time I ever made real money.” With business booming, he stayed late, and by the time he’d cleaned up, most of the other vendors were gone. He loaded his stuff into a trailer strapped to the back of his scooter, and departed the alley to head home. Then a car pulled up. Out jumped three men, guns drawn.
One robber hit Hani hard with the butt of his pistol, knocking him to the ground, and pointed the gun toward his head. He wanted to know how many people were in the house. “I kept saying, ‘I’m the last person. I’m the last person,’” Hani says. “He said, ‘I’m going to shoot your ass.’”
Finally, the pop-up’s security guard heard the noise and came running over. The robbers took Hani’s stuff, hopped back in their car, and sped off. So he just picked himself off the ground and left. “I didn’t call the police,” he explains. “What am I going to tell the police? That I got robbed at a pop-up?”
In 2015, Initiative 71 legalized the possession of marijuana in D.C., and also legalized giving up to an ounce of it away as a gift. Since then, “it’s like the gold rush,” says Rico Valderrama, who works in pop-ups. “Or it’s like the green rush now, with everyone trying to make gold from green.” Hundreds tried to get in on the honeypot, from big corporations fighting for legal dispensary slots, to small vendors “gifting” weed to pop-up customers. So far, non-medical marijuana sales have still been limited to the gray and black markets in D.C.; however, the city has two pending bills that would legalize recreational marijuana sales too, following in the footsteps of the 11 other states that have legalized kush outright.
The “grayness” of the gray market in D.C. poses a unique problem for people who work in it: Unlike the dispensaries or even the street dealers, pop-ups’ relationship with law enforcement is downright mercurial. Sometimes, vendors collaborate with police officers. Other times, they’re treated like outlaws and are unable to access any of the security benefits a legal business would have; instead they’re pushed to fend for themselves in dangerous environments.
City Paper interviewed six people in the pop-up industry who’ve recently been victims of armed robberies, and reviewed the corresponding police reports (unless, like Hani, they didn’t file one, afraid to implicate themselves in the drug market). All six of them described the same sudden shift. Around 2017, the police—previously friendly—suddenly cracked down on pop-ups. And with vendors pushed away from legitimate businesses, they say, the robberies soon followed en masse. “When the crimes started,” Valderamma claims, “it was a weekly thing.”
One night last summer, Valderrama was driving back from a pop-up on a hot evening, with one more stop before getting home to his newborn child. He had the music blaring and his windows down. When he parked his car, he heard a noise behind him. He lowered his music and turned around to find a pistol pressed against his head. Valderrama’s a former marine, and he says instinct took over. He grabbed the gun, and slammed it down into the metal of his car, and sped off. Miraculously, he escaped unscathed.
Another man, who was also followed home from a weed party, had an even closer call. On March 20, he pulled his car into a friend’s house in Congress Heights after a night at a pop-up, and quickly closed the garage door. Then he heard a sound that terrified him: Someone hit the garage door before it closed all the way, and it began to slowly rise back up. Three guys ran in with pistols and told him to get on the ground. After they took all his money and left him on the floor, he got up, and poked his head outside to make sure they were gone. Bang. The robbers shot at him and missed. He heard wood crack over his head and dropped back to the ground, the bullet whizzing down a calm residential street.
“The first couple years [after Initiative 71], we didn’t have any problems,” says one industry figure, who goes by Uzi. (Uzi was one of several people City Paper spoke to who did not want their legal name published, fearing repercussions from criminals or police.) “We could go to restaurants, to bars, with the police outside. There were no public safety problems.” Nightclubs regularly hire off-duty Metropolitan Police Department officers to do security; Uzi says weed pop-ups at the clubs were no exception, with officers paid to help out. The gray market blended into the city’s nightlife scene, operating in popular commercial districts and late-night strips.
“Adams Morgan was one of our best spots,” Hani says. “I could bike there with a wagon full of stuff and not worry about it… I was going into the ’hoods and telling [corner dealers], ‘Stop doing what y’all doing, and get a table.’ And then it changed.”
Around 2017, the crackdown began. After completing an extensive review of arrest records, NBC Washington found that between August 2017 and February 2019, the police raided dozens of pop-ups, resulting in at least 255 arrests. Asked about the impetus for the raids, an MPD spokesperson says, “Possession of more than two ounces of marijuana is a crime in the District of Columbia, as well as distribution or possession with the intent to distribute. Officers will take action when matters like this are brought to our attention.” MPD declined to comment on officers doing security for pop-ups, whether police plan to continue raids, and whether they have plans to address the robberies.
Valderrama says that, faced with a sudden increase in police pressure, clubs and restaurants distanced themselves from the pop-up scene. So vendors moved from dense, commercial districts to less populated areas, operating out of warehouses and people’s homes. There, they were more vulnerable, and they didn’t have police to back them up. Armed robbers jumped at the opportunity.
Mark Manley, a veteran security guard who’s worked extensively with pop-ups, says the dual threat of arrests and rogue gunmen pushed many licensed (and experienced, but unlicensed) guards away from the gray market. They were replaced by large, ordinary men with guns. “It’s like the last pick of jobs now,” Manley says. “It’s not safe … There aren’t no licensed security guards working at these pop-ups anymore.” And after the night of Nov. 14 of last year, it’s not a job Manley would ever choose again.
Manley started working in security when he was 16, and as soon he turned 18, he began working at clubs in the District. An enterprising young man, he quickly turned it into his own business. Soon he had a few guys working under him, and clubs would pay him to handle all their security for a night. By fall 2018, he was 29 years old with eight employees and another five on call. At first, he says, the pop-ups were just “easy money.” They paid “pretty much twice what a normal club would offer,” he recalls, and “the police would actually speak to you at the door, say hello.” Most importantly, it was safe: Manley felt comfortable doing security unarmed.
When the police raids and robberies started, he became more anxious. He didn’t stop working with the gray market, but he did start carrying a gun. “I was literally providing for my family at these pop-ups,” he says. “So it was kind of, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’”
Nov. 14 was his fiancée’s birthday. Manley’s crew was working a big pop-up event at Healthy Vapes on Florida Avenue NW, right by Nellie’s Sports Bar. He wanted to get home to his partner, so his plan was just to swing by and check in. Then everything went wrong.
Around 10:30 p.m., a vendor was leaving the party and Manley decided to “check the perimeter.” He walked down to the corner of Florida and 8th. “As soon as I got to the corner,” he says, “[a car] skirted out and four guys in ski masks hopped out,” waving pistols and semiautomatic rifles, guns firing. Pedestrians began to scream, running for cover in a nearby jumbo slice shop, and three of the guys started chasing vendors who were outside. The fourth, Javone Smith, pointed his rifle right at Manley. Manley says he had one thought in his mind: “Getting home. At this point, it was too late to turn back.”
Manley ducked out of the way and shot Smith, killing him. The other men sped off.
It was later ruled a justified homicide, as the Washington Post has reported. But that night haunts Manley. He lost the security business he spent his entire adult life building up. (He wasn’t properly licensed at the time, although he’d applied for the correct license a few days prior, he says.) More importantly, he tells City Paper, he became obsessed with the man he killed. “I played it out in my head a thousand times,” he says. “Different options.” The next day, he began his painful quest to learn everything he could about Smith. “It was like opening Pandora’s Box—the things he’d been through,” Manley explained, getting emotional. “The more I found out who he was, the more hurt and trauma kicked in.”
However, when he got home after the shooting that night, that wasn’t what was in his head. He says he went into his kids’ room, got in their bed, and stayed there until the morning. “They’re my little brats, you know what I mean?” He let out a long, deep laugh. “I was so happy to see them.”
Uzi, Valderamma, and some other pop-up affiliates are planning a rally in the coming month, focused on the public safety problem in the gray market. They want the city to grant them enough legitimacy to at least get some of the protections a legal business would. “We want to be able to get event permits and hire proper security to stay safe,” Uzi says. “That’s all we want.” Event permits would make it legal for them to hire genuine security officers. “A special police officer can’t legally work an event without reporting the location,” he explains, “and you can’t report a location if you don’t have an event permit.”
Uzi thinks pop-ups won’t go away—the choices are to make them safer or let them get even more dangerous. “The floodgates have already been opened,” he says. “When it comes to drugs, the streets always win. So if we could all come together for the sake of safety, we’d all be better off.”
In his opinion, the economic opportunities in the gray market mean the industry can’t be arrested out of existence. “You literally raided and locked up [255 people], and there were still pop-ups every night,” he says. “Tomorrow, they could say, ‘No more pop-ups.’ And you know what there’d be? More pop-ups.”