‘Wanna Grab a Marijuana Tea After Work?’

As pot laws liberalize, cannabis capitalists eye opportunities for business—and to upend stereotypes. But can white-collar workers handle it, man?

A cup of Jane's Brew tea (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

Jill Amen always wanted to be a barista. She has also always loved cannabis, growing little saplings at home ever since she was a teen. On a visit to Amsterdam a few years ago, she noticed that the “coffeeshops” there are really just pubs for pot smoking.

“And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a coffee shop for coffee?!”

She means marijuana-infused coffee, natch.

Her product, Jane’s Brew, officially launched in January at Hempcon, a cannabis showcase, where it won two first-place awards. It’s now in 100 dispensaries in California, and it moved into Nevada last month.

Amen, along with Ben-David Sheppard, her co-founder, showed off their pot-infused potables at a party in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Sheppard, who lives in Maryland, says he’s considering bringing Jane’s Brew into the District after getting calls from some local medical-marijuana dispensaries.

The tasting took place in the backyard of small gray house in a nice part of town. There was a bouncer at the door—a 6’5” man who sternly asked partygoers for their IDs. When I told him I liked his shirt, which was adorned with a green cross and the words “Jane’s Army,” he cracked a wide grin. “Thank you!”

Next to him stood a woman with a clipboard. “Have you ever medicated before?” she asked each entrant.

One aim of the night was to show D.C.—buttoned up, security-cleared, networking-lunch D.C.—that a marijuana party needn’t be more degenerate than a work gala. Guests milled beneath a white tent. Munchies were decidedly more Chez Panisse than Cheeto: Little cubes of watermelon with mint, things on skewers. It was 80 degrees out, but about half the guests wore blazers.

Jill Amen brews her special coffees and teas in Washington, D.C. (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

Amen stood in the kitchen in silver heels and skinny jeans, her blond ponytail bobbing up and down as she measured out the cannabis solution into 5 mg (“light”) and 10 mg (“moderate”) portions. Her drinks consist of regular tea or coffee that’s combined with a secret powder that took a food scientist one year to develop, she says. The powder helps cover the grassy taste of marijuana and blends the cannabis oil into the drink.

A standard dose is a cup containing 20 mg of cannabis, but veteran smokers might need need a bit more to feel the effects. After drinking, wait 20 to 30 minutes—and then, as Amen puts it, “the world opens up.”

* * *

I used to think the weed beat would be really fun. Then I started working it and realized that every conversation I had hoped would be about “Guys, what if there were really big Cheez-Its?” instead centers on an endless whorl of legal skirmishes and bureaucratic technicalities.

Most activists who are entrenched in the legalization wars can rattle off, even after a few swigs of Jane’s Brew, every minor victory (like D.C.’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana use) and puzzling limitation (it’s only legal in private residences, so the event, which was at one point scheduled to be held in a club downtown, had to change venues).

Aside from the recreational law, about 3,700 people are registered for D.C.’s medical marijuana program. These patients obtain a “physician’s recommendation” after seeing a doctor about one or more ills that cannabis reportedly relieves. They then visit one of three official dispensaries, which are supplied by a limited number of cultivation centers.

If Jane’s Brew came to D.C., it could only be sold in dispensaries to patients who have medical marijuana cards. Though it’s legal to use or possess marijuana in the District recreationally, it’s not legal to sell it. At the event, all the cannabis oil used in the drinks was donated, the organizers said.

“The vagueness of the law stifles folks from trying to decide whether they want to pursue it,” Sheppard said.

Because D.C. limits the number of plants cultivators can grow, Amen and Sheppard say that right now the price of cannabis oil is prohibitively expensive. However, if they start selling their brew here, they have said they would price it comparably to the $7 they charge in Colorado.

Laws move faster than culture. Craft-beer brewers can get away with talking about hop varieties like chefs do about cuts of lamb, but cannabis artisans don’t have the same luxury yet. So you can understand why they get touchy about terminology. At the event, guests were called into the kitchen with an ominous-sounding, “Your medication is ready.” As they picked up their drinks, Amen slapped a green sticker on her customers: “This means I’ve medicated you, my dear.”

I asked Nikolas Schiller, with the DCMJ advocacy group, about recreational use, which D.C. legalized last fall. He quickly corrected me, saying the term “recreational” is pejorative because it conjures a game or competition. I wondered if this meant I could just call it “getting high,” like a normal person. He prefers “leisure use,” he said.

Unless they grow their own, D.C.’s recreational pot users still find themselves in the awkward position of either having to buy marijuana the old-fashioned way—sneakily—or to feign an illness in order to obtain a medical card.

“I don't know how to go about getting a medical license to go to a dispensary to buy marijuana. I know how to call someone who knows a guy,” said Ian, who lives at the house where the event took place but requested his last name be withheld because he worried it would jeopardize his employment.

Certain jobs, including the federal-government roles that draw many young people to the city, maintain strict drug-free policies. Though Schiller told me he’s smoked weed with plenty of journalists, two reporters I met at the party said their bosses had forbidden them to taste the brews.

Olga Khazan / The Atlantic

All of these conditions are likely to improve, though: Limits on growers are easing. D.C. recently banned employers from drug-testing job candidates until they’ve made an offer. Some think that as more Washingtonians experience legal, recreational weed, the drug will become less stigmatized. And who knows, the laws might change once again, making way for a gold rush for cannabis companies.

Sheppard, who has silver hair and a slight paunch, looks like someone who would be more at home sipping a Coors than smoking a doob. He has three boys and coaches lacrosse. In addition to his role in Jane’s Brew, he’s also a managing partner at Mothership Holdings, an investment company that focuses on the cannabis industry.

He thinks the beverages will appeal to “grandmothers and aunts who would never smoke, but would love a cup of tea.” Amen imagines a future in which Washingtonians can nurse her cannabis drinks at special coffee shops, out in the open among the monuments and tapas places.

For now, it’s enough for the duo to put a “different face on cannabis for the District,” Sheppard said. Throughout the evening, Sheppard, Amen, and others took to the patio with a microphone, issuing rallying cries and toasts.

“This is the first of its kind industry event in which cannabis is being enjoyed and served legally in the District of Columbia!” Sheppard cried, to whoops from the audience. “Look at each other, really, look at each other! And think of the wimps who didn't show up.”

Next up was Alex Jeffrey, the executive director with the advocacy group D.C. NORML, who said the event proved that pot users could be just as classy as drinkers—or anyone else.

“As a cannabis user, we have to constantly overcome stereotypes. I like putting a tie on and being able to talk world politics. We want this to be high caliber,” he said, apparently not intending the pun.

And high-caliber it was. But the crowd couldn’t resist giggling anyway.