By Shawn DeNae
Ah, the life! Rolling out of bed when your dreams of living the good life awaken you to the sweet scent of success. Grabbing a cup of java before strolling into the tropic warmth of your garden that gives you such peace as you commune with your flowering ladies. Cooing softly at their loveliness, you dribble some water here, pluck a withered leaf there and envision the harvest that will make your path to financial freedom a reality. Ain’t the weed business grand?
The hopes aspiring growers have for living the dream by developing a thriving legal marijuana business has lured thousands into this land of delusions. It’s as if a trance has overcome restless entrepreneurs as they rush zombie-like into this tumultuous infant industry. The unbridled joy of having the chance to grow marijuana within a legal system is an unprecedented opportunity to improve one’s standing in life — to be independent; to finally be the boss; to be successful, at last.
Not so fast! The harsh reality is an extraordinary amount of hoops, boulders and road blocks to overcome prior to living the idyllic life many envision. The Washington State Liquor Control Board did a great job of listening to the voters prior to establishing the structure of legal weed in our communities. They overwhelmingly heard from small family farmers to “not forget the little guy,” and thus created the tiered system with a low entry fee. Thousands applied and overwhelmed the premature system.
Now that grow sites and adult-use stores are popping up on the landscape, the hoops that were jumped through in getting the application complete seem benign compared to the struggles at the local levels to actually implement the system. Local authorities have been inundated by concerned residents who now question their “yes” vote on Initiative 502 as grow sites and retail stores come on line. Their concerns reflect the tendrils of Reefer Madness and the Fear of the Unknown. They are using that uncontrollable fear to change policies at the local level by encouraging bans and moratoriums through the use of zoning and land-use codes.
“You can’t outwit code,” Snohomish County Planning Director Clay White said during a recent meeting on the issue. Code is the teeth behind the authority on local land use and councils all over the state are using it to bite hard into the establishment of legal marijuana business.
This is in direct opposition to not only the will of the voters, but the aspiring small family farmer that the system was designed to encourage. Washington is a right-to-farm state, yet when the 2014 Legislature voted to take away certain agricultural tax deductions from marijuana farmers, that gave the local authorities the basis they are using to restrict this activity on farmland via strict commercial building codes designed for large factory-type business that are mainly allowed only in industrial and commercial zones.
The battle for legal cannabis has moved into local politics and it has gotten ugly, but there is a silver lining. Education rather than litigation seems to be key. Once local politicians understand the cannabis community is intelligent, organized and comprised of voters, they become softer to the idea of bringing living wage jobs and economic growth to their regions.
“But what about the children?” scared citizens cry. We are all worried about the children. That is a primary reason why marijuana needs to be legalized. We must make access to marijuana at least as hard as obtaining alcohol. The kids need a deterrent and the adult consumer is not going away. The market will be serviced one way or the other. Bans will anchor the consumer to the black market if the regulated market is not convenient.
The local use of code language and how it is being applied is hijacking the industry and financially devastating growers on a very personal level. The majority of these family farm sites are owned by folks closer to retirement than college age. Many are owned by women and it’s the best last chance they have to earn a living off their land. The economic downturn caused many people’s retirement dreams to slide down the drain. Some of those that were most affected looked to this new industry as a source of income. They invested heavily, only to be confronted by changes in zoning codes that could put them out of business before they even open.
The fact that the Liquor Control Board does not require proof of signed building permits, nor change-of-use permits, has amplified the push back. Those who had completed permit applications submitted prior to bans are vested and may be able to move forward; but is it a wise business decision to set up shop in an antagonistic region?
Adding to the pressure, the Liquor Control Board is gearing up to tell hopeful business owners, “Get moving on your application or lose it.” The board has no sympathy to wait while these local issues get ironed out. Some applicants have been told to simply move or go against local authority. It is unbelievable that after all the background checks, we are being told that obeying local land-use codes is not required. It is simply heartless to assume people can afford to move off their land.
Prior to the application process, which started in November 2013, we devoted countless hours to finding a warehouse location close to our home. Landlords who became privy to the situation either put their foot down on the use or quickly raised lease rates from 50 cents a square foot to more than $1. The high costs led us to realize the warehouse option was not the best fit; we wanted to own the property that housed our future business.
We began to look outside the city and discovered Snohomish County was being progressive in its discussions of land use toward the cannabis industry. We involved ourselves in the democratic process of attending hearings, giving testimony and witnessing deliberations. Nov. 13, 2013 was a standing ovation day when the Snohomish County Council adopted Ordinance 13-086 allowing legal cannabis producer/processors to utilize R5 zoned land for this use.
We submitted our application with an address in rural Snohomish County and received one of 86 letters sent from executive John Lovick’s office confirming those applicants’ addresses in R5 were zoned properly. Our building permit application process began in February 2014, with the hiring of an architect, land-use specialist, wetlands and drainage engineers. Our completed building permit application was accepted in late July 2014. We thought we were so very clever to have found this little piece of paradise.
A gut-wrenching email was received in September showing the video from a recent council meeting where discussion of placing a moratorium on R5 was taking place. On Oct. 1, 2014, the council, in fact, reversed its previous decision and placed a six-month hold on accepting permit applications for aspiring legal cannabis grows within the R5 zone.
A small group formed the R5 Cooperative with the intent to educate local officials, as opposed to litigating the decision. Hundreds of hours have been devoted to this effort and thousands of dollars have been spent to hire a land-use consultant, Reid Shockey, to advocate on the behalf of I-502 applicants located in the R5 zone.
We have scheduled tours of legal grow sites for the county’s Agricultural Advisory Board and Planning Commission, as well as the Everett City Council and Snohomish County Council. Many officials, once they visit a site, have concluded these operations can be compatible within R5. Unfortunately, among the county council members, only chairman Dave Somers has taken a tour so far. Council member Ken Klein admitted he consciously decided not to tour. He and fellow council member Terry Ryan are ready to institute a permanent ban. It reminds me of the statement, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!”
Despite the best effort of the R5 Cooperative, a hearing on March 4, 2015 resulted in the moratorium being extended for an additional six months. This was seen as a small victory since they did schedule further deliberations for March 25 (the results of that meeting were unavailable as of Marijuana Venture’s press deadline). The county has since begun sending violation notices to licensed I-502 operators for not complying with local codes.
We are one of only 14 companies that are considered vested within R5. We are continuing to move forward with our building permit with the intent to have our license by the third quarter of 2015.
The cannabis community is beginning to show up in city, county and state chambers as decisions affecting our lives and the future of the industry are being made and it is making a difference. Getting to know your local officials, answering their concerns, providing them with facts to counter-balance the unfounded fears will give them the political cover they need against the “not in my back yard” push back. Good work is being done by a very few dedicated advocates who need the support of the entire industry at all levels.
So, keep a good hold on living that dream. Keep cooing over those beautiful flowers. And, most importantly, keep showing up to provide support. It’s going to take all kinds to make this legalization effort work and we are making a positive impact as together we crush the boulders standing in our paths to a better life, a better world and a better dream to replace this current nightmare of legalized cannabis.
Legalization may be sexy, but implementation sucks.
Shawn DeNae is CEO of Washington Bud Company, an aspiring I-502 Tier 2 producer/processor applicant. She is one of the founding members of the Marijuana Business Association Women’s Alliance and believes women are poised, for the first time in history, to lead an industry.