Higher Ground: Weed in the Rose Garden

The legalization battle arrives at our nation’s capital.

Every single day there’s breaking news in the marijuana movement. Alaska officially legalized weed on February 24, making it the fourth state in the Union to toss aside the chains of prohibition, and the next day, at the stroke of midnight, our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., followed suit. #CommanderInSpleef!  LincolnHG

But if ya think the “Just Say No” Nancy Reagan types are gently stepping aside, and the taxation and regulation of cannabis are going along swimmingly, you’ve been smoking too much of the recently legalized chronic.

In the District of Columbia, an hour before the city officially made recreational ganja legal, Republicans in the House of Representatives tossed a little fear-mongering into the mix.

“You can go to prison for this,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Washington Post—and the citizens of D.C. who overwhelmingly approved the initiative. ”We’re not playing a little game here.”

Reps. Chaffetz and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) sent a memorandum to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, threatening that if the city chose to move forward with pot in the District, “you will be doing so in knowing and willful violation of the law.” The right-wing reps were trying to nullify legalization—and the will of the people—through riders they’d previously attached to the unrelated trillion-dollar Congressional spending bill.

The letter went on to demand that Bowser create a list of all D.C. employees who participated in the enactment of the ballot measure, fork over their timecards, and share their salaries, apparently in an effort to create a sort of Green List. Joe McCarthy would be so proud.

Bowser’s no pushover (hell, in D.C., mayors often smoke crack just to deal with the toughness of their constituents); she let the world know she would do what more than 70 percent of her residents made clear they wanted when they passed the measure last summer. “My Administration is committed to upholding the will of DC voters,” she tweeted. “We will implement Initiative 71 in a thoughtful, responsible way.”

Police Chief Cathy Lanier is also on board, telling the American News Women’s Club, ”All those [marijuana]arrests do is make people hate us.” She added, “Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop. They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem.”

D.C.’s decriminalization law is a particularly big deal because of the massive racial biases behind marijuana arrests in the city. According to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, nine out of 10 people arrested for drug offenses in D.C. between 2009 and 2012 were black. And while blacks make up slightly more than half of the city’s population, surveys show they’re no more likely than whites to use marijuana. The craziest fact of all, according to The Washington Post: White folks are more likely than any other race to be selling drugs. Let’s just say it loud and clear: The War on Drugs is a war on black Americans.

Beyond that, the new D.C. law is largely symbolic, as sales of any kind are not allowed (which also means they won’t be collecting any of those sweet tax dollars). Individuals are allowed to possess and cultivate up to six plants, but only three can be budding in the government’s backyard at a time. District residents can’t fire up on federal land (yes, that means the Lincoln Memorial), in bars or restaurants, or in public housing. Medical marijuana is allowed (it was passed in D.C. in 2010), and if you’re feeling particularly generous, you can “gift” an ounce to friends, family, and fellow residents, so long as they’re over 21. (“Mr. Speaker, I hereby offer this peace-doobie to break the gridlock . . . ”)

The road to national legalization will be paved with setbacks, scare tactics, and a social conversation about what it means to be high. As with moonshine, civil rights, and same-sex marriage, we’ll have to tinker a bit to get it right. Nebraska and Oklahoma are taking Colorado to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming legalization is causing massive drug-enforcement problems, with too many pickups full of Denver ganja entering their backyards. Last week all nine former DEA heads joined the brief. It points to red state/blue state differences, and serves as yet another reminder that, yes, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

But in a sign that we can all get along, a man walked into the Sixth District police station in D.C. last Monday and asked for his previously seized weed back. (He’d been arrested for a charge unrelated to drugs, and, along with a belt and a wallet, had his stash taken during processing.) As possession of two ounces or less is fully legal, an officer gave him his baggie of marijuana. Progress, apparently, comes in small doses.

This article first appeared in The Seattle Weekly.

Tommy Chong, Reconsidered

At 76, the pater familias of the legalization movement won’t slow down.

Michael Stusser’s column appears weekly on as well as the Seattle Weekly and other newspapers around the country.

I’ll be honest. My expectations about a press conference with Tommy Chong, of the famous stoner duo Cheech & Chong, were that there would be some clichéd humor, some pantomimed puffing, and photo ops galore for hippies of a bygone era. And there was some of that. But there was also something I didn’t expect: a fresh perspective on the new pot movement.

The reason Tommy Chong matters—and the reason I’m writing about his recent visit to Seattle’s CannaCon—is that each and every time there’s a mention of legalization or the counterculture or pot smoking, there’s inevitably a reference to Cheech & Chong. Even if the name is never spoken, a haze of Cheech & Chong wafts through the mind. (See?!)

The new conventional wisdom is that the cliché stoner jokes that found purchase in the duo’s franchise are outmoded and of a different era. But what if the beliefs that undergird these jokes are not passé? What if they’re an iconic and important set of core values still relevant—values that should not be lost as we move into a ganjapreneurial era driven by economic and opportunistic rationales?

“We’ve got a great show going on here,” Chong noted at his February 20 press conference, “but everybody here is breaking the law and subject to arrest according to our government. Even though we voted legalization in, and the people spoke, we still have police and a government that’s out to arrest us.” The man knows of what he speaks: In 2003 Chong was arrested, convicted, and put in federal prison for nine months. Not for selling or smoking marijuana, but for having legally licensed his name to a company (Chong Glass/Nice Dreams) that made water pipes—bongs—that were sold across state lines. I can tell you that if I was tossed in the slammer for nine months, I would have exited one angry motherfucker. Not our friend Tommy Chong.

“I got singled out—and ya know what? I feel blessed!” Chong said with his infamous and mischievous grin. “I was looking for something to revitalize my career. Cheech and I were fading into the distance and I needed something. And then it came. It was like my prayers were answered: You’re going to jail! Great! That’s the way I looked at it.”

Today Chong puts his name on everything from hemp water (Chongwater!) to Chong Star marijuana to Smoke Swipes (for the parent who goes out to fire up and doesn’t want to return to the dinner table reeking of weed). But his philosophical attitude isn’t an act. He’s a product of the ’60s and walks the talk—mainly about pot.

“Pot’s only good if you give it to someone or you smoke it. You don’t have to hoard it. Because in a few months, you’ll have a new crop! So you gotta give it away! That’s what you gotta do with your life. That’s the secret! You gotta give love!”

The more I listened to this smiling, effervescent 76-year-old ramble, the more I realized why he is such a joyous inspiration. Sure, there are cliched truths about “hippies” that I don’t fully embrace: the lack of showering, the unkempt beards, and those Godawful tie-dyed T-shirts. But the core values of these counterculture beatniks? Peace, love, and understanding? An “It’s all good” outlook? Communal interests? Harmony with nature? Egalitarianism? Sustainability? Positive vibrations? Good lord! Tell me we couldn’t use more of the “Make Love Not War” mindset in this divisive FoxNews era of angry, trolling, Twittering punditry.

Chong was half an hour late for his news conference, and catching a glimpse of the icon slowly ambling down the convention hall, I saw why. He stopped for each and every stoner, head, hanger-on, and pothead who’d jumped at the chance to get a photo with the legend.

“It’s true,” Chong noted during his hour-long chat. “I’ll take a picture with anybody. And there’s a reason for that. We don’t have much time. We think we do—especially when we’re young. But we don’t.” Chong knows this better than most, after beating prostate cancer with the help of the CBD oils in, yes, marijuana. “When someone asks for a pic, that’s a compliment. They’re not asking everyone—they’re asking me! It’s not a burden. It’s a privilege! Most people my age will either be retired or limping around. Me? I’m going Dancing With the Stars!”

Four decades after Up in Smoke, Tommy Chong is hardly couchlocked, but still a relevant player in the marijuana movement. He’s been a vocal supporter of another group being singled out for using weed, the Kettle Falls 5. He may no longer be the official face of marijuana: the new Green Rush lends itself to sexy budtenders and Seth Rogan and Snoop. But I sure wish he was.

Driving While Stoned and Native Americans Pow-Wow Over Pot

Several tribes will discuss this weekend whether they want to get into the cannabiz.

Michael Stusser’s column appears weekly on as well as the Seattle Weekly and other newspapers around the country.

It should be noted that I’m not exactly a shill for the marijuana industry. (Though product samples can be dropped off at the Weekly offices: make sure to mark packages “Legal Marijuana” lest they be confiscated by the federal post office.) That said, when there’s positive news related to cannabis, given my predilection for smoking the stuff, I have every intention of highlighting the study, report, innovation, or miracle cure—if only to counter the hundred years of Reefer Madness propaganda that came before. (They did have cool posters . . . ) With that pot-infused preamble in place, it’s time for a joke:

What’s the difference between a drunk driver and a stoned driver at a stop sign? The drunkard hauls right past, while the stoner waits for the sign to turn green.

A study released last week by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows no link between marijuana use and car accidents. And while that’s no green light to smoke a fatty and jump into the Caddy, it’s yet another death knell to the “Just Say No” talking points.

Data from the Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers showed that booze increases a driver’s accident risk sevenfold. The road risk for people who test positive for marijuana, after adjusting for other factors, is the same as driving sober. Translation: Measurable amounts of THC in a person’s system doesn’t correlate to impairment as drinking and driving do. “At the current time,” states the NHTSA report, “specific drug concentration levels cannot be reliably equated with specific degree of driver impairment.”

In defense of the pharmaceutical industry (who are also welcome to send in samples), the use of painkillers, stimulants, and antidepressants also showed no statistically significant change in accident risk.

After alcohol, THC is the most common substance found in car crashes, and its presence increased the odds of smashing into something 25 percent. That risk, however, disappears after adjusting for variables like gender, age, and race. For example, men and young people are more insane drivers than women and the aged—and they’re also more likely to smoke ganja. Once you adjust for these factors, “the significant increased risk of crash involvement associated with THC . . . is not found.” Another complicating factor has to do with THC staying in the bloodstream for weeks on end, so while you may test positively after a fender-bender, you may also have been mellowing out (and unimpaired) for days.

Clearly, it’s best if people don’t drive under the influence of marijuana. Hell, some people shouldn’t be driving under the influence of their own power . . . because they suck. I’m only 50 years old and can barely see at night; they should revoke my license because of the odd raccoon-sized floaty-things that periodically drift across my retinas. Sorry, I digress. The most important thing for marijuana users to note is, while you’re not nearly as bad as the boozers on the road, it’s best to get baked and remain couchlocked. Who wants to fire up and sit in a steel cage, anyway? Stoned driving’s just not cool, man.


The Justice Department announced in December that it would allow Native American tribes to grow and sell marijuana on their sovereign lands, which sounds about right, since THEY WERE HERE FIRST.

Tribal governments are now trying to figure out whether they want to get into the ganja game, and have scheduled a national conference on the matter to be held here in Washington on February 27.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing about 50 tribes, passed a resolution last year opposing legalization on their lands (partly due to health and safety concerns for their youth), while Washington’s Suquamish said they were exploring their options for production and sale. The Yakama tribe, with more than 10,000 members, also wants no part of legal weed, and outlawed it on both their own land (1.2 million acres) and the ancestral property (10 million acres) they ceded to the federal government.

So long as they do it in accordance with the federal guidelines set up for states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, any of the 568 recognized Native American tribes can grow or sell the plant. One key sidenote: When you leave the rez in a non-legal state, you damn well better leave the Kalamazoo Kush and Chinook Chronic behind, or you’re liable to be busted, big time.

The first Tribal Marijuana Conference will be held at the Tulalip Resort Casino. Tribes will pow-wow, so to speak, to discuss the future of cannabis on their territories, including cultural issues it may raise and concerns about substance abuse. Hopefully they won’t have to sit through Tulalip regulars like Engelbert Humperdinck, Billy Idol, or Tom Jones. These wonderful people have suffered enough.

Marijuana Meet Markets, Ganja and Girl Scouts, and the Kettle Falls 5

Plus: Olympia’s plan to raise the smoking age.

Michael Stusser’s column appears weekly on as well as the Seattle Weekly and other newspapers around the country.

Marijuana-related business—and the cold, hard cash that comes with it—is the driving force behind the current Green Rush. In Washington and Colorado alone, consumers purchased $370 million worth of cannabis products in 2014. The U.S. market for legal ganja was $2.7 billion—up 75 percent from the previous year. If growth continues—and it will as more states legalize (most predict at least 15 more in the next five years, including California in 2016)—the projected numbers could soar to $11 billion by 2019. I don’t suggest investing in green stocks (after all, most of these businessmen and -women were literally drug dealers last year), but the dope frenzy is just getting started. So this week, let’s start with a market report.

The best ganjapreneurial story thus far hasn’t been about a boutique grower, high-tech vape, or artisan edible—it was a Girl Scout! For the second year in a row, 14-year old Danielle Lei has set up shop outside San Francisco’s Green Cross medical dispensary and sold boxes of cookies like gangbusters. (What a surprise!) This year the Super-Scout sold 208 boxes in two hours. While there have been no such efforts from the Seattle-based GS Troops (perhaps pestering potheads in front of Cannabis City is too politically incorrect in the Evergreen State), it does make me wonder if the Girl Scouts of America should make a licensing deal with some big-time edible maker. They could broker a hefty up-front fee and royalty, and allow Bhang Chocolates or 420Bars to make THC-Mints and Cannabis DeLites! Just don’t give any to Maureen Dowd. She’ll chow the whole box.

Another overlooked market in the marijuana space is the meet market. Over one-third of all couples married since 2005 met online. In addition to and eHarmony, other dating sites help narrow the pool: VeggieDate is for vegetarians looking for love (and a salad), Equestrian Singles hooks up horse-lovers (that sounds weird), TrekPassions transports Trekkies together (“Live love and prosper!”), and Tastebuds attempts to unite music lovers of similar genres. (You’d hate to find out too far down the line that her favorite band is Mumford & Sons.) And now there’s a dating site that connects frisky 20-somethings by their common interest . . . in weed! High There is basically a Tinder app for stoners that matches not only the way you like to get high (bongs, vapes, edibles) but your energy level once you’re fully baked (while marijuana turns me into a hyperactive dancing housecleaner, others may prefer to remain couch-locked . . . ). It’s funny: People used to list drug use as a way to weed out potential paramours.

With all the openness of weed dating sites and potrepreneurs selling their wares in broad daylight, let’s not forget growing cannabis is still a federal crime, even here in Washington. In a high-profile case, five Stevens County residents, known as the Kettle Falls 5, are looking at mandatory 10-year sentences for growing marijuana for medical purposes and in compliance with state law. The U.S. attorney is of the mind that the collective had more weed than they needed and were selling ganja to others—thus they raided the property in August 2012 and seized 75 plants. Given the recent passage of the Cromnibus spending bill that bans any Department of Justice funds (read bulldozers, DEA submachine guns, etc.) from being spent on prosecuting medical-marijuana patients who comply with state law, the defendants were hoping to have the case dismissed. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice instead dismissed the argument, and the trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 23 in Spokane. It’ll be hard for the family to build much of a defense, as medical marijuana doesn’t exist (and thus can’t be argued) at the federal level. The case should be a bellwether regarding future legal actions against medical collectives. On a side note, family patriarch Larry Harvey probably won’t have to stand trial . . . because he has Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Finally, a bill being sponsored in the legislature by Rep. Tina Orwall would make Washington the first state in the country to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21. This point is moot for potheads, as the legal marijuana smoking age is already 21—not to mention the (almost unbelievable) study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which shows that moderate long-term cannabis smoking is not associated with negative lung health. So let’s dogpile on tobacco—which will kill ya: Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who claims smoking kills 8,000 Washingtonians a year, strongly supports the idea of raising the puffing age. “We know that 95 percent of teens who don’t smoke by the time they are 21 never end up smoking,” he said. “It’s really important we are limiting access in those teenage years.” It’s estimated that a raise in the smoking age from 18 to 21 would cost the tobacco industry $20 million a year. Ya know what business they might get into to make up for those losses? Welcome to Marijuana-boro Country . . .

An Introduction, Marijuana Machines, and Our Top Doc Goes Green

The Feds finally hint that weed is not evil.

Michael Stusser’s column appears weekly on as well as the Seattle Weekly and other newspapers around the country.

Many of us seek an elevated state of mind. Our jobs stress us out, our relationships are challenging, world news is depressing, and we just want something to take the edge off. A glass of wine. A Valium. Or, in my case, a few hits of this funny weed called cannabis. I’m not apologizing; I’m overjoyed. Shockingly, the citizens of my fair state voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and, in addition to the massive tax revenue it’s generating for our political pinheads to spend wildly, it’s giving the rest of us yet another way to ease the pain—and occasionally burst out in uncontrollable laughter.

The prohibition on marijuana will come to an end. That’s a fact. While Washington is ahead of the curve, nationally a majority of our citizens support legalization of both recreational (54 percent) and medicinal (78 percent) marijuana. The real question will be what side you were on when the pot leaves came tumbling down. As with civil rights, gay marriage, and gun control, there are resistant, plodding, dimwitted late adopters who will oppose legalization just as the Temperance Movement (know as “drys” in their time) did while propping up the 18th Amendment. I try and be nice to these modern teetotaling crusaders. Maybe they just need a hug. Or a push. Or a puff.

Wonderful things are happening in the world of legal kush. Cartels are losing money and splitting town, domestic violence and teen drug rates are plummeting in legal states, and in places like New York that have decriminalized cannabis, arrests are down 75 percent. Best of all, as I write this, I am stoned to the bejesus on legal herb.

And while it’s great that Washington got the ball rolling with Initiative 502, our weed laws have serious deficiencies. Unlike the other four jurisdictions that legalized ganja—Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia—our stupid-ass statute doesn’t allow citizens to grow their own. While you and I may not want to devote our entire basements to grow lights and stinky Mary Jane plants, if we’re going to legalize an herb, we might as well allow citizens to be poticulturists. (DIY home brews got nuthin’ on the ganja-thumbs!)

Initiative 502 also did not address the medical-marijuana system that has been in place since passage of the Medical Use of Marijuana initiative in 1998. The resulting unregulated collection of dispensaries and collective gardens not only helped thousands of citizens cope with a wide variety of ailments, but opened the door to fly-by-night operators who don’t card, don’t pay taxes, and don’t look any different than the black market we’re attempting to snuff out.

Hearings intended clean up this Wild Weedy West are underway in our dysfunctional state legislature, with proposals ranging from the ridiculous (Sen. Ann Rivers originally wanted to eliminate smokeable pot) to the moderate (Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells envisions a single tax structure, home grows for all, and allowing well-established, rule-abiding dispensaries to get licenses). It’s looking as though the medical market will be folded into the recreational system (read: screwed), and patients may not only have to join a mandatory registry (I can see the NSA drooling now), but pay taxes on their meds.

In addition to addressing these ongoing issues, this column will ponder what it means to be high. It will explore the ways people are getting high (Weed-of-the-Month Club!), making money on people getting high (Marley Natural), and using cannabis for medicinal purposes, as well as an occasional rant about how hundreds of thousands of (mostly African-) American citizens are still being arrested every year for marijuana-related offenses. In short, I hope to elevate the dialogue on the legalization movement.

Let’s start with the latest on the weed watch.

• Last week the new Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said that for certain medical conditions, marijuana may be helpful. The reason this is noteworthy is that marijuana’s therapeutic properties are news to the federal government, which still believes cannabis has zero medicinal value, listing it as a Schedule 1 narcotic along with meth and LSD.

• Washington got its first pot vending machine! Located in the Seattle Caregivers medical dispensary, the ZaZZZ machine contains edibles as well as bags of weed (but no Doritos). The high-tech contraption scans not only your medical-marijuana card (the automats are not yet in recreational stores), but also your driver’s license, then cross-checks the data with the biometrics from the machine’s camera. According to ZaZZZ’s maker, American Green, they’ll soon add security that will require customers to provide fingerprints or retinal scans, and track all purchases. Intrusive databases and speedy, anonymous, machine-distributed weed? Yeah, that’s not gonna set off any pothead paranoia alarms.

But what does the ZaZZZ portend? I worry that as we move from bud-tenders selling organic flowers to machines spitting out disposable vape pens, THC-infused energy drinks, and GummyBear edibles, the more this new era will look like fast food, Big Pharma, and cigarette machines of old.

Fear and Loathing in Legal Territory

From legal growing fields through the black market and into the heart of the medical movement, our writer takes an up-close look at the recreational marijuana revolution.

Michael Stusser’s column appears weekly on as well as the Seattle Weekly and other newspapers around the country.

Something about following a black pick-up truck in the dead of winter to a giant marijuana field in the middle of nowhere still feels wrong. It’s not so much the snow on the Okanogan ground, or that there’s no cell service in case these drug dealers want to body-bag my ass. Actually, it’s the safety of the escapade that blows my flippin’ mind. This gang of ganja farmers is operating in the great wide open, growing a shit-ton of legal weed—even hyping it on social media—and doing so without having to keep one eye peeled for DEA choppers, drug-sniffing dogs, or local coppers. Is this the end of paranoia? Maybe. Maybe not.

New marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado might have some lucky citizens wallowing in a safe stoney cocoon, but nearly 700,000 people a year are still arrested in the United States for marijuana-related offenses. In many states, you could serve 25-to-life for buying the amount of weed I just snagged at a recreational shop for $45. This issue is not settled. Not by a longshot. And as Tim McCormack, owner of Antoine Creek Farms, tells me as he steps out of his snow-covered ride, the long shadow of marijuana’s illegality had them scared shitless at the beginning of their public pot experiment.

“Oh, believe me, it was plenty weird for us when we had to transfer 1,600 marijuana plants in a U-Haul truck at 4 in the morning from an ‘undisclosed location,’ ” he says as the sun sets behind the mountains that butt up against his grow fields.

McCormack, CEO of one of the state’s largest marijuana producers, is referring to a conundrum known as the “first seed problem” or the “magic-bean scenario.” Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, even fully licensed growers find themselves in a catch-22. See, before you get a license, it’s illegal to grow marijuana or even possess seeds. That means that the first growers under the Washington law have been expected to conjure an immaculate conception, producing plants from thin air. Once those growers are given licenses, state officials just look the other way while the farmer magically comes up with starter plants; don’t ask, don’t tell. But don’t tell that to the countysheriff.

“I had a long discussion with my partner, Brian [Siegel, CFO] about who would drive the truck with our plants, and what we’d say if we got pulled over,” McCormack recalls. The reason Tim didn’t drive? “Well, I told Brian that the whole management team shouldn’t get busted in the U-Haul. And I’m also a lawyer, so I could bail him out.”

Fifteen days after McCormack and Siegel’s June run, an inspector from the state came by to make sure the non-flowering plants they’d miraculously created were the right size. Then each was bar-coded and entered into the state’s BioTrack software system, officially becoming part of the state’s newest industry.

The black market, it turns out, still has value in Washington’s new green market. It is, quite literally, the seed of the recreational revolution.

While wheat is the most planted, and sugar cane has the highest annual yield, cannabis is the planet’s biggest cash crop, worth over $300 billion. And weed is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., with growers reaping about $36 billion a year. What used to be an underground economy is now above-board in some places, and threatening to take flight.

This past November, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. all passed ballot measures to legalize recreational use for adults, joining Washington and Colorado. For the first time, a majority of the U.S. population thinks marijuana should be legal; the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was about it (“vape”); Tommy Chong made the semifinals of Dancing With the Stars because of the cultural recognition he built with it; grandmas smoking it are a viral sensation; and Hillary Clinton saw a vision of it in her latte.

Ganja-smoking is smack-dab in the middle of my wheelhouse; I have a long history with the stuff. While I don’t support the idea of waking and baking, blazing at 4:20, or firing up “Everyday, All Day,” it has served to energize and inspire me for decades. That said, I don’t think that marijuana is the Solution, that it’s necessarily “Better Than Alcohol,” or that “if we all had a bong, we’d get along.” It’s also not a Devil Weed or a gateway drug, but it is still clearly not a good idea for developing brains.

And then there is the biggest dichotomy of all: marijuana is legal here, but listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic at the federal level. It is this double life that makes the plant a fascinating conundrum. So I set out to get clues to marijuana’s future. Passing fad, or the End of Prohibition? Should we Just Say No, or is the revolution real?

Joe Bighouse, the Master Grower at Antoine Creek Farms, is old-school. And by that I mean he’s paranoid. Asked about his pre-legal experience, he recoils before relaxing, a little. “Well, I guess they can’t go back and get me now,” he mutters.

“Look, it’s not exactly something I could ever put on my resume, but I had lots of indoor experience. A big operation. Outdoors, though? This is all new to me,” he says, walking around his giant legal operation where workers dry, trim, and package the marijuana. He’s right about the “big” part. This inaugural grow consists of 1,147 plants and 21,000 square feet of plant canopy.

And this is just one operation. The Washington State Liquor Control Board (whose name clearly now needs to be hyphenated) has approved more than 300 growers to supply the Evergreen State’s demands, with another 2,000 applicants still pending. And because no one (at least in government) had a clue about how large the plants might get (the seeds being magic and all), rather than limit the number of plants, the LCB imposed a cap on cultivation—at 2 million square feet of plant canopy. Antoine Creek currently accounts for just one percent of that potential canopy.

Whereas indoor operations—the go-to in illegal days—require energy-sucking lights and ventilation, outdoor plants can grow through the roof. But marijuana doesn’t always grow like a weed. “There are a lot more variables growing outdoors, that’s for sure,” Bighouse explains. “Rabbits, mold. mildew, wind, deer, frost, grasshoppers. Hell, plants can even get sunburned.” Bighouse stops as he sees me taking copious notes. “The thing that—I guess—we don’t have to worry about is being busted. I tell ya, though, a lot of time I’m out there checking plants, and just waiting for the helicopters . . . ”

The first harvest at Antoine Creek got hit hard by a freeze, but will still generate a thousand pounds of marijuana and be separated into more than 600,000 packages for sale in stores—some of it flower (or bud), some finely ground leaf, and some of it the sticky kief powder many of us like to sprinkle on a bowl for an added kick. By law, independent labs will test the product for contaminants including salmonella and E. coli, determine the levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive component in marijuana) and CBD (cannabidiol, one of at least 60 active cannabinoids identified in cannabis), and make sure that all chemical contents are correctly displayed on package labels. That ain’t cheap.

“If we want legal weed, it’s got to be regulated, or the whole thing will get shut down,” McCormack notes. “On our end, it’s a big investment—for us, over a million dollars. There are a lot of steps to follow with testing and labeling. But this is the way we’ll be taken seriously as an industry, as businesses. Consumers will know exactly what they’re getting, the government will be involved in the process, and we’re happy to comply. We call it the Fellowship of the Green.”

For the much larger red-state “fellowship” out here in Chelan County, the politics cut both ways. In the 2012 election, the voters rejected same sex-marriage (57 percent), voted for Mitt Romney (57 percent), and supported the initiative to legalize weed (52 percent). Nationally, there’s still a “Be Smart, Don’t Start” mentality from Republicans, as only 30 percent of them support recreational marijuana. Those pushing the numbers into the overall majority (52 percent) include millennials, nonwhites, and independents. “Most everybody’s been really great and supportive here,” McCormack notes. “Though the local propane company wouldn’t sell to us. Apparently we don’t ‘align with their corporate morals.’ ”

McCormack’s law degree makes him well aware of the delicate legal tightrope his company is walking, and how quickly that rope can go slack. “Look, we’re managing against risk. The next presidential election could be detrimental to our bottom line, so we’ll try and make money while we can—and enjoy being a part of this incredible time in our history.”

One dispensary that will not be selling Antoine Creek’s strains of legal cannabis is Lance, a drug dealer operating “outside the lines,” shall we say. Peddling “traditional supply,” as it’s known, Lance sells weed out of a backpack, pays no taxes, and avoids the costs of lab testing, security, health care, payroll, and packaging (except for the Ziplocs). He also didn’t need to pass a criminal background check, as is required for dispensary owners.

“I think it’s cool they legalized it,” Lance says while we sit in our usual spot in the PCC parking lot. “The chance of going to jail here is pretty much gone now, which, ya know, is a big deal. I’m happy about that. But in terms of sales, I’m down probably 30 or 40 percent.” Surprisingly, the exodus of customers isn’t for fear of being busted. “People just want variety. I have this lady baking some great cookies, but otherwise, for edibles and oils and all that crap, you need to go to a dispensary.”

Edibles—pot brownies, chocolate bars, suckers, and such—currently make up almost 50 percent of the legal-marijuana market. And that’s just the tip of the green-berg when it comes to ways to get high. The days of big ol’ bong hits, dime bags, and ditch weed are waning, being replaced by vaporizers, THC caramels, elixirs, dab kits, and a variety of concentrates, including shatter, budder, and hash oils the likes of which Cheech never saw coming.

Lance is hesitant to give me too much information about his own “farming methods,” but he will tell me he’s a middleman for two individual indoor growers in the Olympia area with several hundred plants each.

Today Lance is offering a choice of either Lemon Haze or Ghost, his most popular strain as it’s consistently “qual”—by which he means it gets you super-baked.

“My guy’s been growing for, like, 30 years, and has it down to a science,” he says. According to Lance, his supplier actually is a scientist at the University of Washington. “Smell this,” he implores, opening a giant Tupperware of Lemon Haze. I’m no cannabis connoisseur—to me, weed is weed—but I take a whiff and am impressed by the citrus tones, hints of cigar box and pungent skunk afterbite. I buy a big ol’ baggie.

I couldn’t tell you if the sinsemilla at legal dispensaries such as Cannabis City or Uncle Ike’s is better or worse than street kush; I’m sure eventually the retailers will have the best Alaskan Thundergoo and Cannabis Cup Winners ever grown. What I can tell you is that the dispensary experience, for me, is infinitely more pleasant than sitting with Lance in my car exchanging cash and awkward conversation in the dark. No offense to Lance, he’s actually a fine,interesting fellow.

If you haven’t visited a licensed dispensary in one of the legal territories, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. These aren’t your gritty Haight-Ashbury head shops with beaded curtains, psychedelic velvet wall hangings of Jimi Hendrix, and dusty shelves full of peace pipes, Hacky Sacks, and grinders galore. Rather, most recreational dispensaries (“rec shops”) have that “new-car smell”—they’re not only brightly lit, but sit in renovated buildings with high-end security and the look and feel of Apple (and not one you can make a pipe out of). They do this not only to avoid trouble with the neighbors and the federal government, but to attract a newer (more affluent) clientele. When unseasoned customers first visit, rather than feel they’ve made a drug deal, they’ll have an experience they’re familiar with, so long as they have patronized Restoration Hardware or SuperSupplements.

But no matter how hard they try, these shops can’t shake the longstanding stigma of Reefer Madness; the sinister smoke screen of the War on Drugs will require more than a few years of semilegal existence to fade. Marijuana is still a controversial subject, and rec shops are being opposed in Washington and Colorado, with city councils, church groups, and neighborhood-watch programs attempting to bar them. (Thus far more than 100 cities and counties have put a halt to marijuana businesses in Washington. Last summer the Fife City Council decided to ban pot shops, and a Pierce County Superior Court judge went along with the ordinance in August; similar rulings followed in Clark, Wenatchee, and Kennewick counties.)

Many retailers have been given licenses, but can’t find a place to set up shop, as they aren’t allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries, game arcades, public-transit centers, or parks. Other ordinances hindering success include limitations on signage and advertising and a ban on window displays; the sale of marketing materials is also strictly forbidden. Sure, it’s cool to sell Aunt Bessie from Omaha a big ol’ bag of Pineapple Kush that will knock her on her ass, but for Chrissakes don’t let her buy a XXXL Clear Choice Cannabis T-shirt! The best solution to the opposition in legal territory is the Oregon model: Cities can opt out of having retail stores, but they won’t receive any of the taxes collected on pot. Boo-yah!

Though Washington was slow out of the gate, the 100 rec shops that have gotten rolling are reeling it in—and then giving large chunks back in taxes. Total sales for July–December 2014 were $65 million, giving the state government more than $16 million in excise taxes to play with. Once the WSLCB gets into the groove and starts approving more applications for stores (334 will ultimately open) and new products (edibles, marijuana-infused coffees, oils, even a Weed of the Month Club!), boatloads more money will line the state coffers, enabling political pinheads who propped up prohibition to bail themselves out of debt. But while I-502 directs taxes toward infrastructure, health care, education, and substance-abuse prevention, the exact allotment percentages were left hazy, so members of the legislature have been clamoring like stoners at a dessert buffet for the sweet spoils.

It’s reasonable to argue that the legal taxes are too high, helping to keep the street trade alive. (In a triple-decker tax sandwich, pot is taxed 25 percent at multiple levels: from farmer to processor, from processor to retailer, and then from retailer to consumers, who also get hit with a 10 percent sales tax. And don’t count out the Feds—who expect another 25 percent of their drug money.) At around $10 a gram, Lance’s ganja is half the price of similar strains in recreational dispensaries. The disadvantage? Well, the black market is illegal in all 50 states, and while you may get only a $27 ticket in liberal locales like Seattle, Boulder, and Berkeley, other backwaters will lock up your ass lickety-split.

The law also results in Lance taking greater, scarier risks. For several years he’s driven a carload of bud to Texas, making around $30,000 profit for the journey. This year, to compensate for his loss to retailers, he’s taking an extra trip with his lemony-dank. If caught, he could serve massive jail time.

Lance isn’t the only one working outside the bounds of 502. While the initiative set up a framework for recreational marijuana, it didn’t address the longstanding use of medical cannabis, which has been part of our Evergreen culture since the passage of Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana initiative in 1998. Citizens passed I-692 by almost 60 percent, making our fair state one of the first of 23 (plus the District of Columbia) that have legalized medical marijuana.

As the state legislature tweaks the new law, people like Deidre Finley, owner and operator of the MMJ Universe, hang in the balance. Her business could soon be vaporized, so to speak, and potentially leave folks like those who I’m eavesdropping on at the Cannabis Farmer’s Market in rural Black Diamond without the collective’s knowledge and expertise . . . or cheap weed.

“It won’t get you stoned, Nana,” a pink-haired 20-something reassures her blue-haired grandma.

“That’s true, ma’am,” explains a vendor. “This cannabinoid oil has very low THC—the part of weed that gets you high—and is very high in CBDs.” That’s the compound in cannabis that’s no fun (and by that I mean it won’t get you stoned to the bejesus), but has been effective in treating symptoms in patients.

“Medical marijuana—and cannabis extracts—help with so many medical ailments: chronic pain. Seizures. Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, and the list goes on,” explains Finley. She’s held this farmers market on her property on weekends for several years; it’s one of nine such in Washington. “Instead of a gateway drug, they should call it an exit drug,” she says. “People come here from all over the country to have access to cannabis products that often replace pharmaceutic drugs, wean them off methadone, and of course replace alcohol.”

Finley isn’t blowing smoke: The Journal of the American Medical Association just released a report showing a 25 percent reduction in fatal painkiller-related overdoses in “420-friendly states.” “The vendors here,” it states, “are making custom formulations for patients—topicals for rheumatoid arthritis, special CBD oils for migraines that are 20 times more powerful than ibuprofen, transdermal patches for people going through chemo.”

One after another, Finley pulls me over to meet patients who use cannabis to treat their ailments: a middle-aged carpenter with MS who smokes to relax his muscle spasticity; a woman suffering from Chiari malformation who “fired her doctor”; an old man whose family was wiped out by “downwinders syndrome” (exposure to radioactive contamination) and claims he beat cancer with pot; and 65-year-old Dee Dee Baker, who was on 12 painkillers after spinal surgery.

“My doctor said I also needed knee and hip surgery for constant pain I was having,” she says. “Before I did that, I wanted to look into cannabis.” Baker had worked at Swedish Hospital for 40 years, and did her research. “I begin using low THC tinctures, and within two and a half weeks I was running up stairs again. And in two years I’d lost 102 pounds.” The MMJ circus tent was like an evangelical show, except instead of preaching about Jesus, they were being healed by the power of pot. Praise Sativus!

“502 is for getting people high,” notes Finley. “They set a minimum level of 3 percent THC. They don’t allow CBD products. Some of my patients aren’t looking to get high. And no [recreational]growers want to grow low-THC strains, as it’s not appealing or profitable. We have boutique, patient-loving growers here [at her farmers market]who are the only ones who will grow it. We need the medical system.”

No doubt not all the people milling about the farmers market are using marijuana as medicine . . . unless you count getting super-baked as stress relief. But nationally, marijuana is medicine for about two million Americans who use the herb to alleviate the affects of everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer. Whereas the country is split on recreational weed (roughly 52 percent support legalizing it for adults), an overwhelming majority—78 percent—support it for medical purposes if a doctor recommends it.

The current parallel system of recreational sales and medical use is, simply, a clusterfuck. Whereas there are only a smattering of state-licensed rec shops in the Seattle area (capped at 21), over 300 medical dispensaries have opened their doors here—many in the past few months. And among those are an unruly group of so-called medical dispensaries and delivery services that don’t check IDs and don’t follow rules related to collective gardens. The city isn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for this new business.

“They’re creating a public-safety nightmare, frankly, and they’re undercutting the 502 stores because they’re unregulated and untaxed,” said City Attorney Pete Holmes recently. “If you’re a commercial [medical-marijuana] operation lacking a 502 license, it’s a felony operation. Period.”

Finley agrees that it isn’t perfect, but the medical system is necessary. “A lot of bad actors are taking advantage, and they need to stop calling themselves ‘medical,’ ” she says. “I’d be willing to require testing of cannabis, regulate dosages, and pay B&O taxes [which she already is doing]. But a large percentage of very sick people are also very poor people. So to charge 87 percent taxes to those who can least afford it doesn’t make sense. You don’t see big pharma paying taxes—and you don’t pay taxes on your ibuprofen. Look around; you see PTSD veterans and people with long-term illnesses. This is medicine.”

Efforts are underway to merge the marijuana outlets. Senior weed statesperson Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles is attempting to combine the parallel medical and recreation dispensaries into one system, clean up the insane tax issues, and allow for personal growing for all citizens (six plants each). Major points of contention include what taxes medical customers might pay (if any), what rules and regulations producers and growers will need to follow, and whether experienced medical dispensaries will be given licenses. This last point is particularly sticky, since medical-marijuana dispensaries have been cultivating institutional knowledge and trust with their patients for decades now.

“I’m sorry, but a 24-year-old budtender in the city isn’t going to ask about your symptoms,” says a patient at Finley’s farmers market, “or know everything these long-time dispensary operators and vendors do.”

Al Olson sure doesn’t look like he has much in common with Finley and her market full of true believers. If you didn’t see his business card or byline, you’d never guess he was a big-time burner. With his silver hair and conservative reporter’s garb, he fits right into the newsroom, the type of place he’s called home since he was 16 years old. But instead of huddling in the NBC studio, where he was a founding editor at MSNBC and worked for NBC for nearly 20 years, today Olson is holding court at literally the highest place in town: the top of the Columbia Tower, where he runs

“I got my medical marijuana card in 2010, and when the editors at MSNBC found out, they told me I couldn’t write about marijuana anymore. They said because of my belief that weed ‘had medicinal value’—I could no longer be objective. Well when I was the food and wine editor for the San Jose Mercury News in the ’90s, they had no problem with me drinking wine and covering that industry!”

MSNBC eventualy relented, letting Olson file a few marijuana stories as a business reporter in late 2013, and once they began to see the traffic they were getting, let him run wild. Still, Olson didn’t like the way they covered the issue. “Mainstream media is struggling with the way they tell the weed story. They’re lazy. There aren’t two sides—there are 200 sides: health, science, lifestyle, civil rights, politics, policy, medicine. And the best thing about it is that when there’s a 50/50 split—which is where we are right now—journalism is at it’s best.”

Now Editor-in-Chief of, Olson was hired by a group of young tech kids out of Irvine, who created an app called Weedmaps. Along with the locally based Leafly (owned by Privateer Holdings), Olson’s employers are battling to become the Yelp for marijuana. Weedmaps knew they’d need a seasoned veteran to take them from stoney humor to the mainstream. “I’m covering the issue as an industry story, really. I’m a business journalist, and this is going to be a huge market.”

According to ArcView research, an estimated $2.7 billion of legal weed was sold in the U.S. last year (a 74% increase from the $1.5 billion in 2013). Sixteen million Americans admitted having fired up in the last month. As the ranks increase, the industry is projected to grow to $10.8 billion by 2018, and $40 billion by 2020, making it bigger business than the NFL or the organic food industry. Weedmaps is making its own bank, hauling in $30 million a year from strain reviews and dispensary advertising.

“We’re not cheerleaders for the industry,” Olson maintains, putting on his reporter’s fedora. “People are curious! We want to appeal to parents who want more information, and we also want to go after the bad guys selling snake oil and pump and dump operations. Weed’s been around for millennia—it’s not going away. For me, marijuana is the story of a lifetime.”

Obviously my own assumptions about hippies, heads, and dead-end stoners had kicked in as I prepared for the final stop on my tour, deep inside the world of marijuana activism. After sending a third e-mail confirming a meeting with Vivian McPeak, the longtime executive director of Seattle’s Hempfest politely responded, “Yes, Michael, I have you on my calendar.” I needn’t have worried—not only is McPeak the CEO of the world’s biggest marijuana gathering, he’s sharp as a tack and more organized than Martha Stewart’s spice rack.

“We’re coming up on our 25th year of doing this, and have over 1,000 trained staff and volunteers who make Hempfest possible. Permits, safety patrols, insurance, first-aid responders, Porta-Potties—we’ve got our shit together—we’re organized.”

I wondered if the band of hungry entrepreneurs hoping to get in on the Green Rush worried him. “I think it’s actually advancing the cause. Jobs, commerce, revenue, taxes; it’s part of the process of ‘normalization.’ We’ve always said we want to include everybody. Capitalists, stoners, ganjapreneurs. Everybody. So now I just want these people who are seeing the ROI potential to think about where they’d be without the hippies and longhairs who came before them.”

As McPeak points out, legalization lines up beautifully with conservative values: states’ rights, individual freedom, sound fiscal policy, American-grown industry, and smaller government. Job creation’s also a biggie. According to CannaInsider, a job-finder and business newsletter for weed, marijuana will create 200,000 new jobs this year, from hands-on gigs like edibles artisans to kush tour guides, lab techs, and web developers.

So now that pot’s no longer a subculture, but heading mainstream, is there a need for Hempfest? “More than ever. There’s no ‘legal’ pot. You pass me a joint—it’s a felony! It’s great that Initiative 502 passed, but it’s not legal to smoke marijuana at the federal level. Even at the state level, 29 grams is a misdemeanor, 40 grams a felony. Growing plants—if you’re not a patient—gets you five years in the pen. Politics trumps the law. If they wanna bust you—guess what? They will. We’re looking for equality for all under the law. We want marijuana taken off the Federal Schedule for drugs. Alcohol—which kills more people than all the other drugs combined—isn’t even on the schedule! And after that . . . ”

I had riled the man up.

Well aware that the winds can change—sometimes overnight—McPeak wanted to leave me with one more critical note: “We’ve really got great momentum, now, but it’s ours to fuck up. A guy was just making BHO oil in his apartment the other day and blew up the ex-mayor of Bellevue. That’s no good. People can’t be leaving their edibles out for some toddler to eat, they can’t be driving around impaired—that’ll blow it . . . for all of us.”

In the next 10 years, dozens more states will vote on legalization, including California, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, and Arizona in 2016. If the patterns from Washington and Colorado continue—high tax revenues; lower incidents of drunk driving, property crime, and domestic violence; and lower teen drug use—it seems likely, if not a no-brainer, that the pendulum will swing. But in all battles worth fighting for, there will be debate and resistance. And so what can we on the bold frontier of green Washington impart to those who will follow? What can trailblazers share with neophytes?

Well, for one thing, marijuana is many things to many people, but what it is not is either side of the false polarity that’s been built around it. It’s not a panacea and it’s not a gateway to hell. It’s medicine for cancer patients. It’s an escape for soccer moms. It’s a material used in paint, fuel, and plastics. It’s a cash cow for private prisons. It’s a secret hobby of middle-aged accountants. Weed is not this or that; weed is this and that. (And that. And that.) Perhaps one day there won’t be a single, monolithic image of cannabis. Perhaps, as with alcohol, people won’t be judged and labeled according to whether or not they indulge, but rather by how they act when they do. It’s tough to predict what pot will become, because we’re not even honest about what it already is.

My best guess for the future? There’ll be a cannabis section in grocery stores, similar to where the liquor section is now. It will include some THC chocolate bars, a few CBD pills (that don’t give you the buzz, but help with migraines, joint pain, and insomnia), nice selections of artisanal bud, and packs of disposable vape pens. Stiletto stoners and Costco members will load their well-labeled, hopefully organically grown cannabis products into their shopping carts—next to the granola, Chianti, heirloom tomatoes, and never-ending toilet paper rolls—and life will go on.

But we’re still a ways away from that mellow new world.

This summer, wildfires came dangerously close to Tim McCormack’s Antoine Creek Farm, and he wanted to thank the fire and police departments for not letting his dream go up in flames. ?After the fire was contained, I invited them all to party at the farm,” McCormack explained. “The Sheriff looked at me and said, “We can’t come to a pot party, man.”

Still, the CEO wanted to do something for these brave men and women. He remembered the Okanogan sheriff telling him that since weed was now legal, the new drug-smelling dogs had to be retrained not to sniff out marijuana. As a thank-you, McCormack is sponsoring the new K-9 units. Peace out, dog.