Metro

Can they do that? Startup delivers lemonade with ‘very special gift’

The logo on a High Speed marijuana gift bag.
John Blanding/Globe Staff
The logo on a High Speed marijuana gift bag.

A dark Toyota sedan rolls up to Globe headquarters in Dorchester at 6:15 p.m. Thursday. I’m awaiting a Jalapeno Lemonade delivery, which sounds refreshing on such an unseasonably warm winter day.

The driver gets out, checks my ID to verify I’m 21 or older, and pops his trunk.

He hands me a Tazo black tea lemonade.

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Then he gives me a small black bag of marijuana.

The door-to-door service comes courtesy of HighSpeed, an online-only company that just started making deliveries in Boston and Cambridge, getting marijuana into the hands of consumers more than a year before sales are expected to be legal in the state.

On Friday, the state’s public safety agency urged district attorneys to investigate such transactions.

Massachusetts’ voter-passed pot law made growing, purchasing, possessing, and using limited amounts of marijuana legal as of Dec. 15. Sales remain forbidden until a marketplace regulated by the state begins in 2018. But giving away or transferring “without remuneration” up to 1 ounce of marijuana is legal as long as the exchange is not advertised or promoted.

So HighSpeed sells its Jalapeno Lemonade for $55, and, the company says in a press release, the marijuana is “a very special gift” with each purchase of its “locally sourced” and “fresh-pressed” juice.

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David Umeh, founder and chief executive of HighSpeed Technology Inc., which has been operating in Washington, D.C., for more than a year, insists his enterprise is on solid ground under the Massachusetts statute.

“The thing about HighSpeed: We’re not a marijuana company. We’re a technology startup. We’re a delivery company. And we deliver juice,” he said.

John Blanding/Globe Staff
A High Speed marijuana gift, with a purchased bottle of lemonade tea, was delivered outside the offices of The Boston Globe.

“In D.C., you can’t sell it. In Boston, in Massachusetts, you can’t sell it. But you can give cannabis as a gift, and that’s what we do,” he explained in a telephone interview.

But the local authorities don’t share that interpretation.

Hours after I asked the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security about the legality of HighSpeed’s sale, an official dispatched a letter to the office of every district attorney in Massachusetts.

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“It has come to our attention that there are a number of individuals and businesses that are attempting to evade the Commonwealth’s prohibition on the unlicensed sale of marijuana by engaging in organized sham transactions,” wrote David M. Solet, chief legal counsel.

He said that HighSpeed appears to be engaging in a “sleight-of-hand” with its juice delivery efforts. “Obviously this is a thinly concealed scheme to obscure the illegal sale of marijuana by an unlicensed seller.”

Asked about HighSpeed’s delivery, Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who prosecutes crime in Boston, said distributing marijuana without a license is unlawful.

He said doing so could subject businesses to fines and expose their employees to the risk of arrest “or, worse, armed robbery.”

Purchasing and possessing limited quantities are legal.

Asked generally about companies selling a product and offering consumers a “gift” of marijuana, Adam Fine, a lawyer who helped draft the legalization ballot measure, said that provision is intended to allow for a pot social scene. For example: People can bring and share a joint or two at a party without getting any compensation — just like they can bring and share a six-pack of beer.

Without touching on specifics, Fine offered one reasonable test for the legality of giving away a gift of marijuana with another product: Is the cost of the item being sold in line with its normal price, its fair market value?

The Tazo tea lemonade I paid for: $55.

Tazo tea lemonade online: $1.27 plus shipping.

(For reference, the marijuana gifted to me was an eighth of an ounce. A top recreational retailer in Colorado, where sales have been legal since 2014, sells that amount of its least expensive strain of marijuana for $15 on special and $20 at its “everyday low price,” according to the company’s president. That, of course, does not include delivery.)

Asked generally about officials who find his business illegal under Massachusetts law, Umeh said of the law: “I think it’s up for interpretation.”

And, Umeh added, HighSpeed is not just about dollars and cents, but also about rebranding cannabis and helping to get rid of the negative stigma that surrounds the drug.

HighSpeed is one of several efforts in Massachusetts to sell a product or service and then “gift” marijuana.

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In Springfield, one spot charges a “cover” to get in and then offers people inside marijuana, according to a local news report.

And there was that well-publicized Craigslist ad for empty plastic bags for sale with a “gift” of marijuana inside.

Wherever such transfers fall under Massachusetts law — the state’s judicial branch may end up being the ultimate arbiter — all such transactions are illegal under federal law. Possession and sale of any amount of marijuana is forbidden.

Given the federal government’s limited resources, personal possession of pot tends not to be a priority. But the Trump administration on Thursday raised the specter of a federal crackdown on recreational marijuana.

Now to the important stuff: What happened to the HighSpeed pot I bought?

To be reimbursed by the Globe for my purchase, I may have to hand over the black baggy for disposal.

And that would be no gift at all.

Marijuana that came with a High Speed bottle of lemonade tea.
John Blanding/Globe Staff
Marijuana that came with a High Speed bottle of lemonade tea.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics at bostonglobe.com/
politicalhappyhour.