Washington state was not only one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, but it also features a regulatory scheme that makes it unlike any other legal cannabis market in the United States. Because vertical integration is prohibited, cannabis brands have proliferated in a way that gives consumers the ability to choose from a wide selection of products and manufacturers, completely independent of the retail store in which they’re shopping. And the state’s limitation of five retail licenses per person has kept intact some of the cottage industry that is quickly disappearing in markets throughout the country.
In addition to being one of the largest cannabis retail shops in the Pacific Northwest, Joint Rivers was the first store in Washington to be built from the ground up specifically for marijuana. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe built Joint Rivers in Auburn in 2018, opening the 2,300-square-foot sales floor in June of that year under a tribal compact with the state of Washington.
The sheer size of the store allows the company to stock a wide variety of products, including dozens of flower brands, both indoor and outdoor, and every type of edible, concentrate, tincture and topical on the market.
“Anything you can think of, we’ve got it,” says general manager Chris Taylor, who joined the company as the inventory manager in May 2018, helping Joint Rivers develop relationships with vendors and stocking the shelves with product, before being promoted in the fall of 2020. “We’ve got all the major staple brands, but it’s always nice to give the littler guys a shot.”
The shop is ideally positioned just behind Muckleshoot Bingo and across the street from the Muckleshoot Casino, which help drive traffic to Joint Rivers. Customers regularly stop in on their way to the casino or during bingo breaks.
As a sovereign nation, the Muckleshoot Tribe, like other federally recognized tribes across the United States, has independent authority to govern itself. It is one of 29 federally recognized Indian tribes in Washington and one of 16 that has a compact with the state to operate cannabis businesses. The compacts generally allow each tribe to operate businesses in a similar manner as other state-licensed cannabis companies, though there are some variances, including a different tax structure and the allowance of vertical integration.
The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe is one of seven tribes in Washington currently operating a cannabis retail store. The others are: Jamestown S’Klallam (Cedar Greens Cannabis in Sequim), Port Gamble S’Klallam (High Point Cannabis in Kingston), Puyallup (Commencement Bay Cannabis in Fife and Tacoma), Squaxin Island (Elevation in Shelton), Suquamish (Agate Dreams in Poulsbo) and Tulalip (Remedy in Marysville).
In addition to the challenges of day-to-day business during a pandemic, Joint Rivers has been unable to host vendor days. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the shop would host regular vendor days on Fridays, using the large sales floor to allow a producer or processor to promote their products. Joint Rivers would also take advantage of being located on tribal land with events that would occupy the company’s large parking lot, featuring vendor booths, food trucks, games, special in-store sales and other festivities to attract the local community.
“Other than the store being beautiful and huge, I would say the staff puts us over the top from a lot of other cannabis shops,” Taylor says of the company’s 27 employees. “We have that one-on-one sales experience. We go out of our way to make sure the person selling you your cannabis products is also ringing you up at the cash register and bringing home that customer service.”
He says sales have increased every year at Joint Rivers, but dealing with the coronavirus pandemic for the past year has been particularly challenging. The company initially closed its sales floor, requiring all purchases to be made online. Only one customer at a time was allowed into the shop to pick up their orders. Joint Rivers reopened the shop in October, with mandatory masks and social distancing considerations.
“It’s been nice to get back on the sales floor and be able to talk to people again,” Taylor says. “We’re not sure how long COVID is going to last, but hopefully we’ll be able to return to normal before too long.”