O happy day. July 8, 2014. Bright sun. 90 degrees, dry heat. Strip mall. A father and his teenage daughter handing out free cans of Cannabis Energy Drink (“like Red Bull, but with hemp seed oil” says dad.
“You’ll still pee clean,” adds daughter). A few elite stoners bivouacked overnight to be the first in line. Spokane Green Leaf is about to open its doors for the first time, ready to sell recreational marijuana legally. End of prohibition. End of government lies. End of all haters. “Watch the anger level in Spokane go down starting today,” says a customer who hides his face when a camera comes out.
We are making hemp history.
Mike Boyer, 30, is a union janitor and security guard who sometimes works at car auctions. He got off work yesterday, went home and showered, then came to the storefront to be the first in line. He’s wearing an absolutely insane tie-dye shirt featuring a chipmunk and a very stoned gnome. The media—Al Jazeera America, the local network affiliates, the Inlander alt weekly—come in to take pictures at 1:30pm when the shop is empty, and then right at 2pm, when the doors first open, a mountain of a bouncer named Jody Cleveland checks Boyer’s ID to see that he’s 21.
Spokane Green Leaf's first customer, Mike Boyer, 30, invited the media back to his place for a tasting. And then he was fired.Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
Boyer buys four grams of Sour Kush and thrusts his hands in the air. “First customer!” he yells, and then races out to high-five the hundred or so people waiting in line outside. He invites all the media to his house for a tasting afterwards.
The television guys seem genuinely interested. The next day, he would contact the media again to say he had been fired from his security job—apparently a zero-tolerance employer—after his bosses spotted him on TV and made him take a drug test. Online commenters at the local newspaper’s website were divided about whether he was a “dillweed” or just a “dufus”. Boyer says he’s looking for another job, hopefully in the marijuana industry.
The Inlander this week: “Witness to History”.
Spokane Green Leaf is the only shop in Spokane, or anywhere in the eastern half of Washington, that is open for business on this first day of legal recreational drug sales. The legalization was approved by ballot initiative in November of 2012. Legal weed shops will be regulated by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, whom I remember from my years in Seattle as the monopoly that ran liquor stores that were never open when you needed them. They are no longer the exclusive sellers of hard alcohol in the state, but they’ve brought their enthusiasm for bureaucracy to the legal weed trade. A sampling of the rules: stores cannot be within a thousand feet of a park or school or library. Retailers are allowed one 1,600-square-inch sign with their business name.
The resolution of their security cameras must be at least 640×470 pixels. The Board held a lottery for the 334 licenses it granted, but the rigorous “seed to sale” tracking and other complications meant that very few of the approved stores could open on time, and those that could had a shortage of product. On opening day, only one shop in all of Seattle was doing business.
The good news at Spokane Green Leaf is that there is plenty of weed. Co-owner Kirk, who doesn’t want to give his last name, says that he has approximately eight pounds for sale, something north of 3600 grams. That’s a lot of little baggies.
Who will be there to stand tall for the drug dealers?
Who will be there to stand tall for the drug dealers? While everyone else seems to be enjoying the pre-game giddiness, Moose is here representing the street dealers whom the state of Washington is trying to put out of business.
Moose stands in the shade, as large as his name, wearing an oversized t-shirt with scripture from Proverbs 25:28: “He that putteth his trust in the LORD shall be made FAT”. He moved here from the Midwest seven months ago for a “fresh new start in the marijuana world.” He says he’s been smoking since he was seven, dealing since he was a teenager, and growing almost as long. And when he looks at this latest innovation in marijuana—this upscale retail shop with air conditioning, free bottles of water, a lacquered hardwood counter and little 2g baggies of weed that sell for $50—he sees not just legalization, but gentrification. The well-to-do get to smoke weed legally. Everyone else still risks imprisonment and ruin.
Moose is here to represent the street dealers. He says government is profiting off the hard work that drug dealers and growers put in for decades.Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
North Spokane is not a rich community. The endless commercial strip along North Division Street that leads from here to the city center is a testament to the American middle class and its shrinking margins: some upscale places like the NorthTown Mall, but also plenty of Golden Corrals and Arbys, closeout furniture liquidators, eCig emporia, buy-gold shops, even a Hobby Lobby for topical measure. And more than anything, there are lanes and lanes of high-speed traffic. “No one drives here, wrote a local columnist, “unless they’re trying to get somewhere else very, very quickly.” Yes, a few of the drive-up coffee kiosks that mark this as Pacific Northwest territory, but otherwise this could be any place in America where people need better jobs, more money, and more protection from the endless war on drugs, even in a state that just legalized weed.
“Everyone I know smokes weed. My mom, my friends, everyone,” he says. “But they can’t afford this, so what they do keeps being illegal.” He points east past the Baskin Robbins, across North Division. “Down there is a grow house, three blocks down. Or go a mile the other direction and there’s more,” he says. “Right now, I can go get Strawberry Crush, Lemon Haze, Pineapple Express, all the good stuff, for $150 an ounce,” he says. Spokane Green Leaf is only selling two gram and four gram baggies today, one per customer, but at their prices, an ounce would cost $700.
Farmer J's Famous Kush and Sour Kush were the two strains for sale.Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
Even medical marijuana is just a form of means testing, says Moose. “Getting a medical card just means that you paid a doctor $150,” he says. “If you don’t have that kind of money, then you’re going to get arrested.”
It’s more than a theoretical complaint for Moose. He did 31 months in federal prison after getting caught with two pounds of weed in Kansas. “It ruined my whole life. I lost my home, I lost my job,” he says. “They took everything and then called me a felon.”
It’s a heavy story. I ask Moose instead how he got his name. “We all grew up with animal nicknames,” says Moose. “It came from football. The speedy little halfback was Squirrel. You know how they say you gotta shoot a moose twice? It took more than one tackler to take me down.”
The only reason why weed is so good is because people like me made it that way first
It’s easy to see why Moose is a bit cynical about the co-owner Kirk, who is looking pleased and busy and says he has trademarked the phrase “It’s Legal” as the tagline for his shop. “That guy can sell for whatever he wants, but because I’m a ‘troubled kid’, because I grew up selling weed, I can’t even get a grower’s card now. Do you think he ever grew this before it was legal?”
One more thing: the government, he says, is profiting off the hard work that drug dealers and growers put in for decades, specifically the cultivation of the strains that will now legally blow your mind. “The government just busted us and busted us in the ‘80s and ‘90s and kept the strains,” he says. “The only reason why weed is so good is because people like me, who really care about experimenting with the plants, made it that way first.”
The government stands to profit handsomely. There’s a 57.5% tax built into each bag of weed.Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
The government stands to profit handsomely. There’s a 57.5% tax built into each baggie: the producer/processor pays a 25% tax, the retailer another 25%, and then the sales tax goes on top at 7.5%. But who among the opening day crowd will really become a repeat customer? Tony Yeaw, 27, sits in the sun, and sums it up brightly: “I’m here for the historical value,” he says. “I may never come here again.” Most people in line look like they might have a dealer or two on speed dial.
Kirk, for his part, doesn’t think his shop will end the drug dealers, at least not quickly. “You look at the end of prohibition, and it took five to seven years to squeeze out the bootleggers.”
Caitlyn Finger, 24, and Chad Welsh, 25, aren’t worried about the street dealers. They’re just happy to have new jobs of their own. Crystal had worked as a youth counselor and at a library. Chad was in retail, working the floor at eCigarette store, and later selling cell phones. Both saw the Craigslist ad for “customer service SUPERSTARS” advertising the position: $12/hour, must be able to pass criminal background checks. An added perk they tell me about on opening day: employee discounts.
Caitlyn Finger, 24, and Chad Welsh, 25, have been hired to be the Spokane Green Leaf's customer service 'superstars'. They also get employee discounts.Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
Just around the corner is Satori, an annex to an existing headshop that is the second of three licensed shops in Spokane. They weren’t able to get their certification in time to open on the first day, but they’ll be providing competition soon enough. So Green Leaf is counting on Caitlyn and Chad to make a difference. “We want to hire very experienced people, experienced users. Customer service ought to be able to ask, ‘what are you going to do today? Mountain biking? Hiking? Just sitting on the couch?’ and then make a good recommendation.”
They try this, a bit, but they need to work on the pitch. Chad tries to upsell a glass pipe. They are not allowed to show off the product beyond holding up a baggie from behind the counter. Customers can’t hold it or smell it or feel it.
There’s not a lot of talk about body effect. I find myself missing Nicola, the enthusiastic, glassy-eyed Italian who works behind the bar at 420 Café in Amsterdam. That man can get you high just talking about the weed.
Glass pipes, ready for the upsell.Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
None of the owners want to be on camera or give their last names. “My family’s been supportive. But you do worry about security.” For starters, this is a cash business. No credit card company will accept payments from them, and lines of credit are so far impossible (Numerica Credit Union is offering up to $5 million credit lines to growers, but not retailers yet). By the time they sell out their eight pounds, they will have taken in $90,000 in cash at their store, and they’ll have to haul it to some bank branch in person.
Legal weed will be regulated by Washington State Liquor Control Board. Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
Deep in the Liquor Board FAQ is this:
Q: Will non-Washington residents be able to purchase marijuana?
A: Yes, but the marijuana products are to be consumed in Washington.
I am not a resident of Washington. But I can buy, so I do. Two grams of Farmer J’s Famous Kush, which has an “old-school taste” and “strong sweet skunk aroma.” Of the two strains for sale, it’s the weaker—17.4% THC instead of 20.4% for the Sour Kush. Truth is, I did all my best smoking back when I lived in Seattle, and the world was dank and weed was illegal and cheap and everywhere. I’m no THC hero anymore; haven’t been for years. I’m now more of an old-man smoker, a bit worried about the pure debilitating high of today’s superstrains. I’m also worried about this part of the FAQ:
Q: The initiative says I cannot consume marijuana in public. What is the definition of “in public?”
A: Initiative 502 states that it is unlawful to open/consume a package of marijuana or marijuana infused product in view of the general public.
Two grams of Farmer J’s Famous Kush: an “old-school taste” and “strong sweet skunk aroma.”Photo by: Nathan Thornburgh
That presents a problem for the traveler. I’m staying at the Davenport Hotel, an old gaudy thing that has no rooms that allow smoking. Is the fourth floor outdoor terrace, where cigarette smokers go, “in public”? I ask a bellman who looks like he might know his way around a bong and a bag of chips for guidance. “It’s, umm, frowned upon here,” he says. Bar Riff, a little dive with an outdoor fenced-in patio, lets people smoke out back he says. But it’s a drive from the hotel, and I’m sunburnt and tired from the blue-sky day at the strip mall. I decide to head for the terrace.
It’s a small joint I rolled, and I have trouble keeping it lit. I glance over the railing—can they see me from the street below? Is someone coming from inside the hotel? Can they smell the weed up in the hotel rooms? Yes, there it is, that warm familiar feeling I was looking for: not the feeling of getting high, but the feeling of breaking the law.
Nathan Thornburgh is the co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms and is a former editor and foreign correspondent at TIME Magazine.