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Evergreen state of mind: Washington pot sales begin, despite shortages

Retail marijuana shops kick off, though slow licensing has partially blunted high expectations for recreational users

SPOKANE, Wash. — Before the doors to one of the first legal pot stores in this state opened, and before the TV cameras and newspaper photographers snapped a photo of the man in tie-dye thrusting a baggie of marijuana over his head, it still seemed hard to believe that pot would actually be legal here.

On a sweltering summer Tuesday in Spokane, the line — of middle-aged women in camping chairs, gray-bearded men, and college students in colored sunglasses — wrapped around the side of the strip mall where Spokane Green Leaf, the first licensed store to open to the public in eastern Washington, is located.

In the parking lot, a cannabis energy drink tent provided free drinks and green lighters. An idle car, windows down, was blaring Sublime. At the front of the line, a 20-something woman in a white T-shirt and denim shorts pressed her face to the glass and peered through the windows of Green Leaf.

“If you want to smell it,” said a young man in a baseball T-shirt, pointing to the adjacent storefront, “just go next door into the driving school. Just go in! Smell it!”

No one here seems to mind that just two grams of marijuana will cost $50 today. In fact, the folks at the back of the line say they probably won’t even be able to buy any pot at all. Word is, the store will run out within a couple of hours. “I wanted to be here on the first day,” a 25-year-old man named David (who wouldn’t give his last name) said as he sipped a soda. “It’s just making history, I guess. Everyone’s so excited.”

Washington is following in the footsteps of Colorado in legalizing marijuana for adults over the age of 21 and creating a licensing system for its growth and sale — going further than many other states that have relaxed rules on medical marijuana use. After being issued retail licenses on Monday, recreational marijuana shops around the state had expected long lines and shortages — the day was dubbed “Green Tuesday” — with many anticipating selling every last gram of legal marijuana they had in stock by the end of the day.

An employee collects money while holding packages of marijuana at Top Shelf Cannabis.
David Ryder / Getty Images

Anyone who anticipated an immediate bonanza for the state’s new marijuana industry, though, was to be disappointed. The shortages found at most shops signaled a rough start for an experiment that Alison Holcomb, who helped the push toward legalization at the state ACLU, said is intended to undercut the black market. She wondered if the Liquor Control Board might need to make changes in order to truly achieve that.

“I’m glad the Liquor Control Board has emphasized consumer safety and quality control over expediency, but I do wonder whether the agency should expand its staffing capacity to process license applications from growers,” she said. “Unlike Colorado, where applicants were already licensed as medical marijuana businesses and making money while they waited, Washington’s producer applicants are losing money every month and jeopardizing the viability of the retail shops.”

Around the corner from Spokane Green Leaf, inside another recreational marijuana shop called Satori, the glass cases were sparkling — but they were empty. The store was one of many that delayed business until they could get a full stock of product on their shelves, according to owner Justin Wilson. At Green Leaf, just two strains of legal cannabis were available; when Satori opens, it hopes to have more than 20.

By noon, staff next door at Wilson’s other business — a tobacco pipe and glass shop called Piece of Mind — had turned away a dozen people looking to purchase marijuana.

Opening for business has been no easy task. Wilson, who has owned 13 glass shops in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii over the past two decades, said recreational marijuana shops involve unique, pricey infrastructure. Security cameras must be accessible by the Liquor Control Board at all times, and employees are outfitted with panic buttons. Even store signs can’t measure larger than 11 square feet. And, of course, all product must be trackable — from seed to sale.

Wilson, who said he named his store after the Buddhist term for awakening (“In a sense, our government, our people, have had that epiphany — their satori — that this isn’t that big of a deal”), doesn’t mind opening late. He’d rather do it right, and make sure he’s abiding by the state rules. Satori, which is located in another strip mall alongside Wilson’s glass shop, an e-cigarette store and a Domino’s Pizza, is slated to open next week.

“I think [the state wants stores] to succeed, in my opinion, to show to the feds it works, to show to the general public that it works, to show other states that it works and other countries that it works,” he said. “And I hope that by them being so scrutinizing … it’ll weed out —”

He paused.

“Sorry, bad pun,” he said. “It’ll weed out those who can’t handle it and those who want to run a transparent and viable operation. There will be failure.” 

Hilary Bricken, a Seattle attorney representing a man currently suing the city of Wenatchee over its ban on pot businesses, said the opening of stores isn’t just about bringing in money to the state, but shattering dated perceptions of marijuana.

“People, I think, are so sick of hearing that marijuana is an insanely dangerous drug, when history and experience all point to that being untrue,” she said. “I think people have become more tolerant, and they understand that legalization is actually positive when it comes to control over and treatment of marijuana. We’ve moved beyond suppression and into tolerance, which breeds education and awareness. So my opinion is that perceptions have definitely shifted.”

Meanwhile, back at the tail end of the line at Green Leaf, 55-year-old Pat Hoyt, with a long gray beard, said he didn’t think this day — when you could buy pot at a store counter — would ever arrive. “I’m just here because it’s a legal store,” he said. “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Inside, the guy in the tie-dyed shirt paid for his marijuana and announced to the room of cameras and scribbling reporters: “I purchased two grams of Sour Kush and some papers!”

He turned to the store employee, bag of marijuana in hand: “Uh — can I just walk out with it?”

She nodded. 

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