I walked into a store in Roanoke County, bought a pair of pruning shears and was given a marijuana joint as a “gift” — a joint that lab tests showed was so full of impurities that it could have caused side effects ranging from “mild symptoms” all the way up to “severe life-threatening complications.”
I made this transaction at a new business called the Zarati Shop in July. In September, this was one of the 24 business across Southwest Virginia that were raided by police in what Virginia State Police called “an extensive, ongoing criminal investigation into allegations of money laundering and illegal narcotic distribution network by retail establishments,” and which Attorney General Jason Miyares hinted in a statement was aimed at stores doing business in “THC products,” THC being the shorthand for tetrahydrocannabinol, the part of cannabis that produces the high. Last week, I finally received the lab results on my July acquisition, which is the occasion for this column.
Before we talk about a “free” joint contaminated with impurities, I have to begin with my love of spicy Mexican shrimp. That’s what led my wife and me to visit one of our favorite restaurants one Sunday evening in July — Alejandro’s at Market Square North, a strip mall in the Hollins section of Roanoke County. On that particular evening I noticed a new business with a strange name that gave no hint as to what sort of commerce it was engaged in. Being curious, I went to find out.
The signage looked quite professional — sometimes you can tell a lot about the quality of the business by the quality of its signs. The shades were drawn and there was a sign on the door that said you must be 21 or older to enter. A clerk was standing outside. I asked her what sort of business it was. She said it was an “agricultural grow” store.
I grew up on a farm in Rockingham County. I spent much of my youth at the Farm Bureau stores in Elkton and Harrisonburg and sometimes the J.O. Stickley tractor dealership in Harrisonburg. I’m pretty sure I know what an “agricultural grow” store looks like, and a small retail shop in a suburban strip mall with a “must be 21” sign isn’t it. The clerk also asked: “How do you like to partake?” There was never any mention of what I might like to partake; that seemed understood. At the time, what I wanted to partake was the spicy Mexican shrimp.
That night, I did some research online and discovered that there were Zarati stores all across Southwest Virginia, and based on the customer comments and other references, I inferred that these stores were engaged in “adult share” of cannabis, the preferred classy name for what we used to call marijuana. “We are HERE Roanoke!,” the Facebook page for the Roanoke County store proclaimed. “Come in and see what all the BUZZ 🙂 is about!” A thread on Reddit consisted of customers openly discussing the quality of the weed they had acquired at various Zarati outlets.
This is where Virginia’s halfway legalization of cannabis has brought us. In 2021, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly legalized possession of small amounts of cannabis — up to 1 ounce. You can smoke it in the privacy of your own home. You can grow up to four plants, under certain conditions (they can’t be seen by the public and they can’t be accessed by those under 21, for instance). You can also give it as a gift to another adult — but you can’t sell it.
The Democrats who passed that law in 2021 intended to come back in 2022 and create the legal structure for a retail market in Virginia. Their rationale for the delay was twofold: Creating the laws governing a brand new market takes time (licenses, regulations and so forth), but in the meantime they didn’t want people getting busted for what they intended to legalize anyway. So they went ahead and legalized small amounts in 2021 and figured they’d pass the retail rules in 2022.
Voters had different ideas. In November 2021, Virginians installed a Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Some Republicans are dead set against legal cannabis. Others, of a more libertarian bent, are more open to the concept — but they had very different ideas than Democrats about how that retail market should be set up. For instance, Democrats wanted to take a social justice approach and give those with marijuana convictions first crack at licenses for cannabis operations. Republicans said that was rewarding law-breakers. Meanwhile, Gov. Glenn Youngkin — also a Republican — has made it clear he has no interest in the subject. That means even Republicans who might be of a mind to work out a deal with Democrats have been wary — why take a political risk for something that the governor might veto?
The bottom line: No law has been passed. That has left Virginia in a gray area. You can possess small amounts of cannabis but, unless you grow your own, you can’t legally buy any — because no one can legally sell it to you. It’s like saying it’s legal to possess a small amount of alcohol but no one can legally distill any or sell it. You can guess how that would play out. And that’s exactly what has happened in Virginia with cannabis — some have figured out a way around the law, or so they thought, through the concept of “adult share.”
For some reason, these shops appear to be concentrated in Southwest Virginia, with names such as The Good Vibes shop — and a marijuana leaf prominently featured as part of the logo — while a billboard for the Natural Needs and Remedies store in Bristol advertised “adult sharing is caring.”
In April, Miyares — in response to a query by Tazewell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Plaster — issued an attorney general’s opinion that said stores that “gift” marijuana as part of a purchase are breaking the law. When Cardinal’s Susan Cameron wrote about the proliferation of these stores in apparent defiance of the AG’s opinion, one store owner replied that while she was aware of the opinion, anyone can have an opinion.
Here’s how Susan wrote the part of her story where she interviewed Teresa Green of the Good Vibes store:
Green said she’s originally from Bristol and returned to the area from Florida to open what she calls “adult share stores.” The Good Vibes stores do not gift cannabis, which is illegal, she said.
Asked how the sharing arrangement works, Green said, “That’s as clear as I can get with it.”
Or, as we used to say growing up in the country, as clear as mud.
A day after happening upon the Zarati Shop in Roanoke County, I went back to check out both it and another business I’d discovered, a “wellness club” in Roanoke whose sign advertised “cannabis membership.”
The wellness club is a small building, now painted bright green, beside a funeral home. The inside smelled strongly of marijuana. When I asked how it worked, the clerk told me I could buy a membership, which could entitle me to “buy CBD and trade it for THC.” There was some artwork on the wall, with no price tags. When I asked how much it costs, I was invited to make an offer. That confused me until I visited the Zarati Shop.
Unlike the wellness club, the Zarati Shop gave off a professional vibe. It was brightly lit and had no odor of any kind. It was also unclear at first what kind of business it was engaged in. There were lots of T-shirts and stickers — and a small selection of gardening supplies, including liquid fertilizer.
When I asked the clerk how it worked, she showed me a sticker and asked if I liked it. I gave the wrong answer — I said “not really.” She asked how much I thought the sticker was worth, so I said “$20.” With that answer, she directed me to a blackboard behind the counter and said that would entitle me to “Kelso’s Cut.” Next to it on the blackboard was a category called “Premium” which listed “Pure Michigan.” Since there were no prices listed, it’s unclear to me how much I’d have had to pay for a sticker to score some Pure Michigan. Now it was clear to me why the art at the wellness club had no price tags — this was all based on “make an offer.” The words “cannabis” or “marijuana” were never mentioned, but when I asked more questions, the clerk said she had to be careful about what she said.
I thanked her and left — but not before I was given a flyer for the store. On the front it said: “Welcome to Zarati Roanoke: Ask About Adult Share.” The back was blank except for a stamp that said “1 FREE PRE,” which apparently stood for “1 Free Pre-Roll.”
About a week or so later, I went back to the Zarati Shop, this time intending to make a purchase to see what would happen. I decided I wasn’t going to pay for some overpriced T-shirt, and I have no need of any sticker, but I did remember seeing some pruning shears, and figured I could always use those.
When I went back, I had to wait in line. A couple was ahead of me. I’m not sure what they bought but he wanted to pay using a credit or debit card. The clerk said the store only took cash and directed him to the ATM in the store. When their purchase was completed, the woman was directed to a corner of the store where another clerk went into a back room and came out with something in a plastic bag, which she turned over to the customer.
Then it was my turn.
The shears were in an enclosed case with no price tag. I asked the clerk how much they cost. She looked at them and said “we can do $15.” (I looked up the price for that brand later online and found that $15 was the going price, so I figure I got a good deal.) I paid with a $20 bill, was given $5 in change — no tax was added. I was offered no receipt. When I showed my flyer with the “1 FREE PRE” the clerk behind the counter directed me to the other clerk, outside the back room in the corner. “She’ll take care of your other,” the first clerk said.
Again, no mention of what that was. The clerk in the corner went into the back room and came back out with a small, sealed plastic bag that contained what sure looked like a joint. As I was leaving, both clerks were outside the store waving signs. One sign said: “Free Pre Roll.”
I never opened the bag. Insead, I turned it over to the forensic science lab at Virginia Commonwealth University for testing.
The first round of testing confirmed that the joint did, indeed, contain enough THC to qualify as marijuana (as opposed to hemp, which is also cannabis but can’t get you high). The lab was curious and wanted to do more testing. Those results took a while to arrive but now we have them.
The sample tested positive — “above the acceptable limit,” said Michelle Peace, a forensic science professor at VCU — for mold and yeast. It also contained unidentified bacteria that was “around the decision point” — meaning there wasn’t enough bacteria to qualify as a positive test, but it was close.
I asked about the implications of smoking a joint with unacceptable levels of mold and yeast. Here’s what she told me: “Inhaling yeast and mold can cause mild symptoms like headache, dizziness, coughing, shortness of breath (and other symptoms that seem like asthma). Inhaling yeast and mold can also cause severe lung infections and congestion. Severe life-threatening complications can also occur.”
I suspect that both Democrats and Republicans will be able to cite my account as a reason to support their different positions. For some Republicans, this may be yet another example of why the state is right to crack down on these stores. For some Democrats, this may be a good reason why the state needs to set up a legal retail market. The original legislation, by state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, called for giving the state power to “establish sanitary standards for retail marijuana product.”
If I go down to my local convenience store and buy a pack of cigarettes (something I’ve never done, by the way), I can be assured that I know what kind of poisons are inside — and that the product is actually tobacco from a regulated factory, and not sawdust or who knows what. I also know where it came from — Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, whomever. I have no idea where my moldy, yeasty weed came from. I likened the situation earlier to legalizing alcohol but prohibiting its sale — what we have now is a situation where the cannabis that’s circulating is the equivalent of moonshine. Who knows whose radiator it was distilled in? Or, in the case of marijuana, who knows what else is in it? Around the country, there have been reports of marijuana laced with fentanyl. When I dropped my sample off at the lab, a lab worker told me about a case in Richmond where someone she knew smoked a joint that was being passed around at a concert and had a very bad reaction to whatever was in it. Whatever we think about whether cannabis should be legal or illegal, I trust we can agree that the current situation isn’t a good one.
I have many questions, which no one has been able to answer. How much inventory of cannabis did these stores have? Individuals are allowed to only possess an ounce of weed but presumably a store doing business has to have more than that in its inventory. Did any taxes get collected on my purchase of pruning shears? (The search warrants remain sealed, so we don’t know yet what police found). Where I’m wondering about such legalities, others see the situation quite differently. One fan posted on the Zarati Shop’s Facebook page: “How are they gonna raid a place for selling items and gifting something to us, that’s like raiding Kroger for handing out free samples which at this point I feel like I need to see happen to justify what they done to Zarati.” Of course, there are also health department standards for grocery stores to make sure you don’t get served moldy Swedish meatballs.
As for my sample, we don’t have to worry about it anymore. The lab report says: “The sample was destroyed in the process.”
And the Zarati Shop in Roanoke County is now closed.