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High Hopes for D.C. Pot Growers as City, Congress Fight Over Law

Since early this year, “Sam”, a Washington D.C. resident, has been using a green "vegger" box and a blue "flower" box in his closet to grow marijuana for the local state fair’s “Best Buds” competition. The competition takes place on Saturday at 4:20 p.m. in Washington D.C.

Sam had always wanted to grow his own marijuana.

So when it became legal in Washington D.C. in February, he jumped on the opportunity — just in time for the D.C. State Fair “Best Buds” competition.

“I’ve always kind of found it really of interesting, the idea of growing and cultivating your own plant, of sort of taking care of it, and putting your own personal touch on it. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” he told NBC News. “With the Initiative 71 legislation (the city's non-medical marijuana legalization ballot initiative) passing, I think it kind of gave me a kick start … I’ve always been a smoker of marijuana, but I’ve never grown until it became legalized.”

Though the city has made it legal for people to possess two ounces of pot for recreational use, it’s still illegal to buy non-medical marijuana.

So Sam, who prefers to use a pseudonym out of concern for his job, broke the law to buy his seeds. A friend mailed it to him from Colorado where it’s legal to sell marijuana.

He didn’t know what to expect from his first plant. He lives in an apartment, so his goals were to find a seed that wouldn’t stink up the place.

He grew his plant by putting a 30-gallon tub in his coat closet and affixing lights with timers to the tub.

“I’m just really proud that I was able to do it … I have sampled my weed and it’s good,” he said.

Related: Marijuana Commerce Blossoms, But Challenges Abound

Sam’s journey as an amateur pot grower illustrates the conundrum Washington D.C. residents face in the midst of a conflict between local law and congressional efforts to upend legalization of non-medical marijuana in the city.

The Case for Legalized Marijuana 2:39

Washington D.C. is a federal district and not part of any state. And while there is a locally elected government and a non-voting congressional delegate, Congress has jurisdiction over many aspects of the city’s governance.

After the city’s Initiative 71 passed last November and was implemented in February of this year, Congress tried to block the legalization of non-medical marijuana in the district.

“The position of Congress is that it’s not legal and that D.C. is violating the mandate of Congress,” Rep. Andy Harris a Maryland Republican, who inserted the original provision blocking marijuana legalization into Congress’s spending bill, told NBC News.

The local government argued that the congressional spending measure didn’t block the city from “carrying out enacted marijuana policies and that Congress can’t tell Washington D.C. how to interpret local law.

Mayor Muriel Bowser views congressional attempts to do so as an obstruction of the city’s law.

“Last November, the residents of the District of Columbia overwhelmingly voted to approve Initiative 71, and Mayor Bowser upheld the will of the people,” LaToya Foster, Bowser’s communications officer, said in a statement to NBC News. “There are many issues that merit the attention of Congress, but interfering in the District’s affairs isn’t one of them.”

Related: D.C. Legalizes Marijuana Despite Threats From Congress

Marijuana proponents say that this standoff has led to a dangerous half-legalization, where the city is unable to gather statistics about how many people are using it and regulate the age of those using.

The city has, however, been able to track the number of marijuana-related arrests.

In the five months prior to legalization, when the city had already decriminalized the possession of one ounce of marijuana or less, there were 166 marijuana-related arrests.

In the five months after possession of less than two ounces of marijuana became legal, there were 126 arrests conducted by the Metropolitan Police Department for at least one marijuana-related charge.

It’s up to Washington D.C. police officers whether to make an arrest for non-medical marijuana possession. The number of marijuana-related arrests was one of the biggest motivations behind the push to pass Initiative 71.

“The district was motivated in part by the astronomical disparity in arrests,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Washington D.C. Democrat, told NBC News. “Here we have a university town … somehow white people don’t get arrested but black people do.”

Though the number of arrests may have decreased, Marijuana Policy Project Director Dan Riffle says that the banning of sales has only made it easier for drug dealers to thrive, while depriving the city of tax revenue.

“It is perfectly legal now to carry around an ounce of marijuana if you’re a drug dealer,” Riffle said. “One of the reasons why a lot of the folks refer to the Congressman Harris rider as the Drug Dealer Protection Act, essentially what it is now we’ve made it easier for folks to enter the marijuana industry illicitly here in D.C. and what we want to do is make sure that the industry is taxed and regulated so that sales are accounted for.”

Big Money Bets Weed Will Bring in the Green 2:19

Jon Gettman, a criminal justice professor at Shenandoah University, agrees.

“It’s created a kind of golden age for the illegal market in marijuana, and this is really, I think, to the detriment of the city,” said Gettman, whose research and analysis includes drug policy. “I think the city deserves tax revenue.”

However, Sam points out that now that he can grow marijuana, he’s not dealing with the drug dealers.

“I really don’t have to worry about purchasing marijuana in a black market capacity,” he said.

Though Sam doesn’t think that the city’s law has taken away the “stigma” of smoking marijuana, he does think that there’s been a lot of progress.

“Just as gay marriage has sort of gone that way, gaining momentum in the states … I can really see it gaining that momentum to where it becomes federally recognized,” he said.

Legalization opponents are relieved that the drug isn’t as openly prolific in Washington D.C. as it is in states where it’s fully legal.

“I am gratified and thankful that we don’t yet have a situation like Colorado where we’re selling pot … on the street corner or store and commercializing it with billboards everywhere. But I worry that that’s gonna’ be the next step,” said Kevin Sabet, former Senior Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “It’s incredibly symbolic for these companies to come to the nation’s capital and advertise and promote their product, especially with the influential lawmakers. And absolutely, the word is that D.C. is the hottest market for that.”

The High Cost of Marijuana 2:12

Opponents also don’t want marijuana to have a similar trajectory to the availability of alcohol and tobacco.

“I don’t think D.C. wants to be known for how much bud it can create,” Sabet continued.

Related: College Kids Smoked Pot More Regularly in 2014 than Cigarettes: Study

As for the D.C. State Fair itself, Harris views the “Best Buds” competition as a huge affront to the laws of this country.

“D.C.’s not a state, so I’m not sure how they would hold a state fair,” he said. “They’re violating federal law when they do [the ‘Best Buds’ competition].”

Once marijuana legalization passed in the city, D.C. State Fair outreach director Anna Tauzin thought that a marijuana growing competition would be a creative addition to the other components of the fair. Just like any summer fair competition, there are rules and there are judges.

Contestants have to have grown the plant from a seed, and it will be judged on its appearance, odor, touch, and the story behind its growth.

While the “Best Buds” contest is certainly garnering attention, Tauzin stresses that it’s just one component of the fair and that other contests, such as the pet contest are way more popular. And no one will be smoking at the fair.

“We’re not going to be barefoot singing Bob Marley in a drum circle the entire time,” she told NBC News.

The fair will be held on September 12 at the Old City Farm & Guild, on Rhode Island Avenue. Judging for the Best Buds contest will begin at 4:20 p.m.