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On (Legal) Main Street USA, Old Fears Slow Cannabis Progress

Everett, Washington is a midsize industrial city just north of Seattle. It’s the county seat of northern Washington’s Snohomish County and home to Boeing’s largest factory, which drives its economy. Politically, it leans working-class conservative—Glenn Beck grew up nearby, and Trump saw it as a superior location to Seattle to host one of his infamous campaign rallies.

Yet Everett has happily supported five legal cannabis stores since legalization took effect in 2014. Cannabis is, according to most polls, no longer a strictly progressive issue. Republican leaders have become some of legalization’s staunchest advocates nowadays, and people from all points on the political spectrum support it.

Data Dive: Legalization No Longer a Partisan Issue, Election Data Show

On paper, Everett looks like the perfect illustration of this phenomenon: It’s a working class, conservative community whose largest pot store regularly clears $700,000 a month in sales. But in practice, Everett’s cannabis policy reveals that legalization isn’t quite the bipartisan darling it might appear to be.

In 2015, the state Legislature passed SB 5052, dubbed the Cannabis Patient Protection Act. It shuttered the state’s medical marijuana industry, replacing it with an expansion of retail licenses under the recreational system. Stores interested in catering to patients could apply for a special medical marijuana endorsement.

Afterward, regulators at the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) allotted five new licenses to Everett. The City Council, however, voted to opt out, issuing a moratorium on any new cannabis stores. That ordinance included a commitment to revisit the issue before June 1, 2018. Recently, the city’s planning commission did just that, recommending the city lift the moratorium and allow all ten stores as approved by the LCB.

Everett’s five remaining licenses are stuck in purgatory—as are the business owners who obtained them.

As a result, Everett’s five remaining licenses are stuck in purgatory—as are the business owners who obtained them. The licenses have been approved and issued by the LCB, but they’re specific to Everett. The city’s moratorium renders them useless.

One of the expansion license holders, Gene Kulinovsky, who operates Kushman’s, which has two other stores in Lynnwood and Mukilteo, has been campaigning for two years to overturn the moratorium. He said he’s frustrated to have gone through the expensive LCB licensing process, which includes leasing a physical location for the shop, for nothing.

“I think it’s common sense that you’d allow five more shops here, simply for accessibility and security,” said Sean O’Sullivan, a lobbyist for Kushman’s. “There is a black market out there, and what these shops do is undercut the black market.”

Find Legal Cannabis in Washington State

As council members were set to vote May 16 on a proposed ordinance that would have lifted the moratorium, lobbyists and advocates showed up in force. Supporters argued that the additional stores could help with everything from the opioid crisis to the local economy. Two veterans, in particular, spoke about their experience using cannabis in place of opiates, and advocated for increased access.

Trey Sewell, an Everett resident who uses CBD to treat pain from injuries sustained jumping out of planes in the Army, said, “We need these new influx of products to meet the needs of medical patients. It’s the only reason I can go to work and maintain almost a full-time job every week.”

How Veterans Are Leading the Fight for Cannabis Reform

He took issue with public comments from the previous week’s council meeting that, he said, characterized him as “some sort of drug addict for taking a medicine that helps me to reintegrate into society.”

Another veteran, Chester Curtis, bemoaned a full-page ad taken out against the ordinance the day prior in the Everett Herald, describing it as “grossly misleading and false.” The organizations behind the ad, MomsStrong.org and PopPot.org, are proponents of the widely discredited gateway drug theory and are opposed to cannabis on broader moral grounds. Both regularly repost content from the  anti-cannabis lobby Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Rather than being a gateway drug, Curtis countered, cannabis had been his ticket off of opioids. He’s not the only one.

Cannabis as an Opioid Exit: 5 Real-Life Stories

Others at the City Council meeting opposed expansion of the industry for different reasons. One of the owners of Kushmart, the city’s biggest existing cannabis store, was there to argue that his store was already meeting the city’s demands. Several others trotted out the gateway drug theory or suggested that more cannabis stores would lead cause a surge in illicit drug sales and petty crime.

After an impassioned public comment period, the council members themselves weighed in. Jeff Moore, a pro-business conservative, argued against the ordinance based on his belief that more cannabis stores would drive other businesses away from Everett. Despite Kulinovsky and other licensees making the case that the stores themselves were businesses, and would generate up to 70 new jobs, Moore was more concerned with attracting bigger business—the type, he suggested, that might be driven off by cannabis stores.

Another council member, Ethel McNeil, invoked the gateway drug theory in explaining her opposition to the measure.

When the amended expansion bill came to a vote, it failed. Only 3 of the council’s 7 votes were in favor of lifting the moratorium.

Is Cannabis a ‘Gateway Drug’?

Outside, the frustrated licensees  and their lobbyists stood in a circle, smoking cigarettes and punctuating their chatter with shrugs and sighs. The vote was hopeless, one said, with the majority of the council, in his view, voting along “religious lines.” Though no council member explicitly cited religious beliefs as the reason behind their no vote, it was clear the lasting social stigma and moralizing around cannabis came into play.

Josh Estes, a lobbyist working on behalf of the five businesses with licenses but no place to put them, said the vote sent “a clear message to the marijuana industry”:

“Everett is not interested in respecting what the voters overwhelmingly voted for,” he told Leafly in an email the next day. “It seems as if they are more interested in pleasing a small faction of the faith-based community under the disguise of appealing to an economic development concern that simply does not exist.”

Tobias Coughlin-Bogue's Bio Image
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue

Tobias is a freelance journalist based out of Seattle. His work has appeared in Vice, Broadly, The Stranger, and GreenState.

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