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Scammer or Entrepreneur? Washington D.C.’s Kushgod Defends His Brand

On the national cannabis map, Washington, D.C., turned adult-legal in 2015. But Congress’ control over the District has blocked the emergence of a legal, regulated market. So those of us who live here have learned to abide by an ever-shifting set of rules. 

Rule One: Cannabis is still federally illegal, so beware of federal land. It’s not just parks and government buildings. Federal land includes anywhere the president and his traveling motorcade are at any given moment. Rule Two: It’s legal to possess up to two ounces, but it’s not legal to purchase cannabis. At all. Which has led to Rule Three: In the District, cannabis is often “exchanged” in a donation-based economy in which sellers give freely in exchange for contributions. “Nonprofits” on Craigslist offer cannabis as a quid pro quo for monetary “gifts.” The Washington Post recently reported that a t-shirt vendor in Columbia Heights was offering small bags of cured flower for those who left generous tips. 

No one, however, has been more brazen than a D.C. entrepreneur named Nicholas Paul Cunningham, a.k.a. Nyck Paul, a.k.a. Kushgod. Cunningham, who prefers to be called Nyck Paul, has made it his business to push the boundaries of that donation economy — he’s pushed it so far, in fact, he’s now awaiting a court date at the end of June. 

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Last summer Paul created Kush Gods, a company established to do business on the donation-sale model. He wasn’t quiet about it. In August, the company unveiled a fleet of four luxury cars, custom-wrapped with pictures of cannabis leaves. Paul hired “Kush Goddesses” as mobile budtenders. Estimates of the company’s income ranged from $1,000 to $5,000 per week. 

Not long after, the company’s employees were caught donation-selling cannabis to undercover police. In March, Paul pleaded guilty to two counts of marijuana distribution. A D.C. Superior Court judge ordered him to shut down Kush Gods — including an app that helped buyers find Kush’s cars — and to stop selling cannabis or infused products in the District. Paul was placed on probation, and the judge told him to remove the cannabis insignia from his four vehicles. 

Photo by Chloe Sommers

Kushgod stands next to one of his establishment's custom-wrapped vehicles. Photo courtesy of Kush Gods

The judge’s orders didn’t take hold. Earlier this spring, Paul was cited for violating his probation by conducting business connected with cannabis. He’s set to appear in court on June 24.

In an interview with Leafly earlier this month, Nyck Paul defended his company and spoke out about his legal challenges. 

"We are on the brink of a booming industry and I have branded marijuana," Paul said. "I'm doing all this branding and marketing before anything is taxed." A self-described "black man with dreadlocks," he said he’s someone government authorities don't want attached to the legal marijuana market.  

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It’s not just government authorities, though. In a recent Washington Post article, NORML founder Keith Stroup called Paul a "scam artist," adding: "I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for the Gods. I think they’ll be put out of business for a long time.” 

Other activists disagree. Jon Mello, executive director of Maryland NORML has come out in defense of Paul and his company. 

“Demigod or demon, the Kushgod is taking a beating for the team,” Mello told Leafly. “Yes, he ran out in front of the gray line and will likely face some consequence. Whether you approve of his business practices or not, you must recognize and understand that the current framework for legalization in D.C. invites this approach.” 

“Rather than vilify the brazen entrepreneur,” Mello added, “I suggest we embrace him and this challenge and use it as a catalyst as we march forth toward full legalization.”

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Mello’s stance reflects growing frustration among East Coast cannabis entrepreneurs, patients, and consumers. Mello lives in Baltimore, across the state line from D.C., where Maryland’s medical marijuana patients are peeved at how long it's taking their state to get a voter-approved program running.

Many believe the first step in solving the problem will come when Congress stops blocking the implementation of cannabis regulation in the District. Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, believes it’s an issue of Congressional overreach. "D.C. should be able to regulate marijuana without congressional interference,” he told Leafly. 

“The fact that the Kush Gods were targeted shows Congress needs to get out of D.C. and let us regulate marijuana so people know for a fact if they are in clear compliance with the law." 

The recent half-step up from criminalization is a victory for cannabis activists. But at the same time, the District’s legal limbo has led entrepreneurs to push the envelope as they try to build companies in anticipation of the coming legal market. Nyck Paul may be a bold activist or merely a brazen scofflaw, but one thing is clear: Among the residents of Washington, D.C., he’s already established a valuable brand.

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