On the morning of July 8, 2014, the first retail marijuana sales in Washington state took place in Bellingham.
At a Top Shelf Cannabis location off Hannegan Road, people began lining up as many as four hours before the 8 a.m. grand opening. Within four hours of commencing business, the store had sold 1,000 grams (2.2 pounds) of marijuana to about 1,000 customers. According to news reports, one customer drove all the way from Alabama.
The dispensary did nearly $221,000 worth of sales during their first full month of business in August 2014, generating more than $73,000 in taxes, according to 502data.com.
Today — eight-and-a-half years after retail purchases began and 10 years since Initiative 502 passed in November 2012 — the local cannabis industry continues to grow green, both literally and financially.
A blunt history
Before 1923, cannabis was unregulated in the Evergreen State. One of the first bills attempting to codify it was House Bill 3, passed that year to regulate narcotic drugs. At that point in the state’s marijuana journey, a conviction of selling or possessing cannabis was good for one to 10 years in state prison.
Subsequent federal laws further restricted cannabis. The first was 1937’s Marihuana Tax Act, which required an excise tax on approved uses and otherwise criminalized sale and possession. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 refined federal laws and classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug — the same as heroin. Washington passed its own version of this bill in 1971, classifying marijuana in the same way.
But in 1998, two years after California became the first state to legalize medical Mary Jane, Washington voters passed Initiative 692 to do the same. Today, medical marijuana is legal in 39 states.
Then, when Initiative 502 took effect on Dec. 6, 2012, Washington became the first state to allow retail sale of marijuana, doing so four days ahead of Colorado. Since then, 18 other states and the District of Columbia have followed.
Maryland will join the list next year, and public pressure to nationally legalize marijuana is growing: an October 2022 Pew Research Center poll found 88% of U.S. adults now think marijuana should be legal for both medical and recreational use.
A sea of green
The rise of cannabis sales in the U.S. have crested like a green wave: total sales of legal cannabis products are expected to reach $33 billion this year according to MJBizDaily, a website providing cannabis business information.
In Washington, annual retail sales regularly exceed $1 billion. Cannabis retailers in Washington did $103.7 million worth of sales in September alone, MJBizDaily data shows.
Department of Revenue statistics indicate cannabis has brought in more than $2 billion in taxes for the state over the past five years. That’s a larger amount of state revenue than alcohol and tobacco, primarily because of the drug’s 37% excise tax — the highest of any weed-legal state.
In Whatcom County, total tax revenue was $85.2 million through the end of 2021, according to 502data.com. Between July 2014 and the end of 2021, Whatcom consumers purchased nearly $313 million worth of cannabis.
At 2020 Solutions’ Iron Street location in Bellingham, the dispensary has brought in more than $22.7 million in sales since it opened at 4:20 p.m. on July 10, 2014. With the exception of April 2020, the location has not seen monthly sales figures below $200,000 since June 2015.
Choices and rules
Since the early days of legalization, Whatcom County’s marijuana industry has grown to include several dozen retailers and even more processors.
Top Shelf, which changed its name to Pure Pot Shop in January, operates a single location off Pacific Highway, a two-lane road running parallel to Interstate 5 between Bellingham and Ferndale. The road is a proverbial murderers’ row of marijuana, featuring three dispensaries in a 1.6-mile span.
Pure Pot finds itself in the middle, and Lindsey Shively, the shop’s lead budtender, said they try to go the extra mile to get customers to drive the extra mile to them. Competition, she said, has more evenly distributed dollars. Still, business is brisk.
But despite the positives, Washington marijuana retailers still operate under numerous laws that might seem arbitrary.
Shively said following Liquor Cannabis Board laws can be difficult to understand; for example, alcohol may be purchased in Washington between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m., but cannabis sales can be conducted only between 8 a.m. and midnight — four fewer hours for potential business.
“There are certain things that don’t make sense,” she said. “It can be frustrating, not only for people that are working in the industry, but customers that come in.”
Quirks exist in other areas, too.
Brian Jeffery, a budtender at 2020 Solutions’ location off the Mount Baker Highway, said that while the state limits the amounts of cannabis products that a customer can purchase in a 24-hour period, the amount of THC contained in those products is not always part of the limitation.
In recreational sales, customers are limited to 28 grams or 1 ounce of flower-based cannabis, 72 ounces of liquid, seven grams of concentrate and 16 ounces of infused edibles.
However, the edible limit is based on the weight of the food product, which can contain extraordinarily large amounts of THC, Jeffery said. Although edibles typically top out at 100 mg of THC per product, it is possible, Jeffery added, for consumers to purchase a handful of lightweight products that would cumulatively give them a massive high.
“That’s kind of a wonky one that they maybe should look at,” he said.
Another weird one?
Dispensaries can sell products with cannabis in them, and products used to consume cannabis, but not products to facilitate the use of those products.
“We’re not allowed to sell any cleaning products (for bongs or pipes),” Jeffery said. “We’re not allowed to sell butane, which is a big part of the dabbing process. We can sell the torches, but we can’t sell the butane to fill up the torches.”
The result is an inconvenience for customers, who must frequent a gas station, grocery store or headshop for what they need.
Pure Pot Shop also finds itself in the position of many cannabis dispensaries across the country: losing access to digital payment options.
About two weeks ago, Shively said their cashless ATM — a machine allowing customers to make debit transactions that are disguised to banks — abruptly stopped working, necessitating a return to physical cash transactions. They eventually received an email stating that the service would not be returning.
This, of course, raises concern over robbery risks, of which Pure Pot is unfortunately familiar. They’ve twice been broken into since Shively was hired, including an armed robbery at the beginning of 2022.
Pure Pot’s owner has taken extra safety precautions, she added, and the store works with POSaBIT, a Kirkland, Washington-based point-of-sale and payment technology company, to safeguard cash registers. By pushing a virtual panic button on a screen, registers will lock, while also sending an alert that a robbery is occurring.
Shively said POSaBIT is hoping to provide them a system that allows them to decrease physical cash transactions. But for now, many local dispensaries are in the same paper boat.
Jeffery, who works both open and close shifts at 2020, said he’s always nervous about possibly being robbed when the store is heavy on cash. His location has had several attempted break-ins in the last year.
“I’m more nervous at night, because it’s getting dark, versus in the morning, when it’s getting light,” he said. “(But) you always run the risk.”
High on life
Both Shively and Jeffrey say cannabis legalization has been a boon to their lives.
“This is the first job I’ve had that doesn’t feel like a job,” Shively said. “Even on my worst days, I love coming into work.”
She’s also seen cannabis make a legitimate difference in customers’ lives, including those suffering from arthritis, cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).
Jeffery has seen similar things. Recurring neck pain he has from a past car accident gives him personal insight into the palliative effects of cannabis. On the recreational side, he said the former stress of illegally buying questionable product has given way to higher-quality legal options at increasingly affordable prices.
“Normally, 3.5 grams’ worth of flower is around $40,” he said. “It was like $60 for 2 grams back when (legalization) first started. It was just crazy expensive.”
Despite the dearth of products, Washington is still restricted to products made within its borders. Transporting cannabis products, even between two legal states, is still federally illegal.
While the nature of federal law remains clouded, Shively said the future of the cannabis industry is something everyone is eagerly anticipating.
“We’re just kind of all sitting on the edge of our seats here, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next,” she said.
— Reported by Matt Benoit
- “Growth in local cannabis business amplifies challenges as well as revenues,” Dec. 16, 2021
- “Recent robberies prompt renewed look at security for cannabis retailers,” Feb. 11, 2022
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