It’s a Thursday night in October, and I’m seated on the second floor of an H Street building in a smoke-filled room that has been converted into a photo studio and office space. Below me is cannabis gift shop Street Lawyer Services.
“Here’s how you take a f–king photo,” says Lonny Bramzon, owner of Street Lawyer Services, as he stares pointedly at the camera and slows down his speech for emphasis. “This is how you take a f–king photo.”
He’d been on about this for a little bit, professorially reducing photography to two poses: “a kill face and a f–k face.” Bramzon makes multiple attempts at both. I weep for Ben, the photographer.
It’s getting late. There’s a flat screen mounted to the wall, which appears to play an ongoing list of music videos, largely rap and R&B, with colorful backdrops. Dressed in a turtleneck accompanied by a gold chain with a marijuana leaf, which I imagine draped over him during an elaborate ceremony, Bramzon launches into an oratorical performance with no particular audience in mind, just a willing listener. Then he looks directly at me.
“Bro, do you know the meaning of life?” he asks.
Lonny Bramzon is the owner of the Law Office of Lonny Bramzon in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he practices as a criminal defense attorney. Street Lawyer Services in Northeast D.C. is a marketing office for his legal practice. They sell “discounted coupons redeemable for legal services,” it reads on their website, and “all coupons come with an optional free cannabis gift of your choice.”
Bramzon graduated from Columbia Law School in 2003 after attending Stanford University, where he received a B.A. in sociology in 2000. It’s easy to get distracted by this information.
“How did this guy become this guy?” one might ask themselves.
But in order to find answers to such questions, one must abandon the cold and head south to the state of Florida, where Bramzon is from – more specifically, Miami.
“I don’t know if you could have Lonny coming out of Ohio,” says Daniel Bramzon, Lonny’s older brother. “I don’t think a ‘Lonny’ could come out of Ohio. Lonny has to come out of Miami. He epitomizes some degree of Miami.”
The Bramzons are of Mexican and Jewish descent, raised by parents they describe as disciplinarians. When I ask Daniel whether or not his brother attended Stanford to follow in his footsteps, as that’s also his alma mater, he quickly laughs.
“I think Lonny went to Stanford because our dad told us to,” he says.
While their post-secondary schooling was prestigious, I gather their high school wasn’t necessarily the Andover of Miami.
“My high school was pretty rough,” Lonny says.
“It looked like a prison,” Daniel adds. “Maybe because it looked like a prison, it felt like one inside.”
Lonny indicates that some of the roughness he witnessed in high school helped him when he was a public defender in Baltimore, which is another nugget of information about Bramzon that adds to his character. He admits always doing what he had to do to get by.
“I did what I had to do to figure it out,” he says, reflecting on law school. “Okay, what’s this outline? What’s the final look like? An essay? Okay, what kind of essay? What kind of questions? That’s what I was more f–king worried about and concerned with and strategized for than f–king learning the shit. That’s just how I did things.”
Even though he walked away with a Columbia Law degree, he says because he was “at the bottom third of the class or some shit,” he didn’t get any offers. He didn’t appear to be a fit for the big law firm life, and after an associateship in Miami, he phoned his father looking for some direction. He recommended Bramzon become a public defender, so he interned for Rockville, Maryland-based criminal defense attorney Samuel Delgado, whose story is separately so interesting it may be the inspiration for my crime novel.
“He was my mentor,” Bramzon says. “I was just an intern with him for six months and bro, it was like f–king training with Mike Tyson for six months.”
Delgado, who has been an attorney for 40 years, has handled over 200 homicide cases. At the time, he was working on a lot of MS-13 murders.
“I was kind of like the consigliere for MS-13 for a while,” Delgado says.
When Delgado found out Bramzon spoke Spanish, which was a necessity for some of his clients and witnesses, Lonny was instantly thrown into the mix. He’d go to crime scenes, take photographs, make calls, research and write.
“He’d go to the courtroom with me and pretty much do what I do, except stand up in front of the judge,” Delgado says. “He was my right-hand man, my sounding board.”
So what the hell are we doing in a dispensary on H Street?
Lonny will be the first to tell you that as a criminal defense attorney, most of the violent cases he dealt with involved alcohol.
“It wasn’t even crack,” he says. “It was alcohol.”
This realization, along with a unique moment in life, forced him to reroute.
“An opportunity presented itself at a time in my life when I was looking for a new direction,” he says. “I was going through some personal stuff and I said, ‘F–k man, I’m going to go for it.’ And then I thought about the idea. I already had the brand, Lonny the Street Lawyer, because that brand has been around for a while, so I parlayed that into a marketing office.”
The Street Lawyer brand had indeed been around for a while because “Lonny the Street Lawyer” was a regular program on WLVS Radio years ago, and is now a weekly hour-long segment on DC101’s Klinger Show.
The Business Model
Upon entry to Street Lawyer Services, someone at the door immediately asks you for your ID. You are asked to use the hand sanitizer to your right, and then you’re directed to one of the many markers along the carpet to stand in line. It’s no different than an average retail experience. There’s a glass counter with an assortment of products that patrons are eager to purchase: cannabis flower, edibles (Sour Patch Kids, Nerds Rope, lollipops), etc. There’s even a fridge with lemonades.
And business is booming. There’s often a line out the door. The employees behind the counter, or brand ambassadors, are referred to as the SLS Women. Each has their own following as a creative in the region.
“It’s not just a cannabis store,” says Ariana Fleishman, who runs creative studio The YANA Cast with Beth Cormack. YANA represents Street Lawyer Services.
“Street Lawyer Services is a brand that’s very much trying to bring to light the culture of cannabis, media and news,” she adds, “working with people in the cannabis culture to talk more about and proliferate cannabis.”
Bramzon adds, “When you go to Street Lawyer Services, it’s a vibe. It ain’t like the assembly line shit. We know the people, and the people come from every walk of life. People from North Carolina and deep in Virginia come here. Republican, Democrat, old, young – nobody gives a shit when you come in here. There’s music playing and the girls are so cool. It’s a family.”
What’s always been a wonder is: How is this legal? Great question. Initiative 71, passed in November 2014 and put into effect in February 2015, was a voter-approved ballot initiative in D.C. that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. The initiative allowed for the following terms. It is legal for adults 21 years of age or older to:
- Possess 2 ounces or less of marijuana
- Grow within their primary residence up to six marijuana plants, no more than three of which are mature
- Transfer 1 ounce or less of marijuana to another person as long as 1) no money, goods or services are exchanged; and 2) the recipient is 21 years of age or older
- Consume marijuana on private property
- Lawfully transfer to another person 21 years of age or older, without remuneration, marijuana weighing 1 ounce or less
I spoke with an attorney for the D.C. government who is familiar with the District’s marijuana laws, but only agreed to provide information on background and asked to remain anonymous. The attorney said that in 2015, there was a rider attached to the congressional budget spending plan that prohibited D.C. from regulating the sale of marijuana. That rider has remained in the budget each year since the bill was passed.
As a result, an economy of gifting cannabis hasn’t just formed. It’s flourished. And here’s the best part: The D.C. government, including the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., seem to have accepted this economy of gifting. Pop-ups and storefronts have been shut down as a result of improper gifting, selling an individual an amount over 1 ounce, and/or suspicions surrounding the store owner and staff. But new shops keep popping up all over the city, and the initiative has innovatively shifted the way marijuana can be purchased in D.C. without a medical card.
A law against gifting doesn’t presently exist, and this is because the politics of marijuana are changing. They continue to change around the country, witnessed by our most recent election, and they continue to change in the city we live in.
The Politics of Marijuana
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who is currently departing, authored the Marijuana Legalization Act, Bill B-23 -0072 in 2019. If you are a “gift” shop owner, run a pop-up or are just a regular marijuana user who either smokes or purchases in the District, including all of y’all driving from down South, I highly recommend giving it a read. This impressive document details what recreational usage in D.C. will look like if we move forward with legalization via Congress, and appears to cover nearly every angle while creating a progressive strategy to address those who have been previously incarcerated or are currently serving time for a marijuana-related conviction.
The House of Representatives just passed the MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019) by a vote of 228 to 164 on December 4. The act “removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes or possesses marijuana.”
While the act still needs to make it through the Senate, this is historic. And if Congress continues to play nice, what happens to the Lonny Bramzons of the world?
“There are a lot of [gift shop owners] who are very well-established and function professionally, and bend over backwards to do it legally,” Bramzon says. “They say when the recreational market opens up, I should have a seat at the table.”
And he should. A gentleman like Lonny Bramzon may expose your biases early, but this inclination can be such a Washington feature. He stands out wherever he goes, but I imagine he’d stand out less in Miami, L.A. or New York than he does in D.C. His journey up until this point, as head-scratching and fascinating as it is, only gives things more bass.
“Lonny is larger than life,” says a friend from Columbia Law School who agreed to speak only on background because of his firm’s restrictions. “He always has been. He’s so many unusual things in one package. If Lonny were a character in a book, you wouldn’t believe it. You’d find the book to be incredible. This is too ridiculous. This person is too fantastic. He is a real person who exists despite the reality around him.”
There have been so many phases of Lonny Bramzon that I find myself questioning whether or not he is an intentional individual or not – or if his entire persona was an invented character.
“I think he’s his real self,” Daniel says of his brother. “He’s not doing it with an intended goal in mind. This is Lonny.”
Street Lawyer Services: 409 H St. NE, DC; 202-839-4200; www.streetlawyerservicesdc.com
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