State government has in recent weeks stamped 142 retail marijuana licenses with a medical endorsement that will let them cater to patients come July 1.
The value of an endorsement for the roughly 65 percent of pot shops that have received one won’t be fully known, though, until more rules are set for Washington’s newly consolidated medical and recreational marijuana system.
“If it did come to fruition, we could significantly expand our business,” said Jim Sulton, owner of one of the stores with an endorsement, A Bud and Leaf in Olympia.
Today, he said, he’s limited by restrictions surrounding Washington’s 2012 legalization of recreational marijuana. “We can’t say this will cure this or this will help alleviate that,” he said.
The slew of endorsements is a sign that patients wanting to medicate with marijuana are likely to have options no matter where they live in the state, regardless of what happens as the state begins deciding which unlicensed dispensaries to legitimize.
Medical-marijuana shops must shut down or obtain state licenses by July 1. The stores best positioned to make that switch are concentrated in the state’s most populous county: King.
In the first round of selections in 2014, a lottery was used to rank applicants for recreational marijuana licenses. Lucky ones, like A Bud and Leaf, scored a low number. This time around, the Legislature told state regulators to choose applicants for new licenses based on their histories.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board has divided the more than 1,100 applications it has received into groups based on priority.
Owning or working at an unlicensed outlet is a plus in the application process, as long as that business had been around for a few years and had paid taxes. Applicants only reached the top tier, however, if they had also applied during the first round of licensing.
Thirty-three applications from 26 applicants met that test as of mid-November. The agency is processing those top-priority applications first, putting entrepreneurs who have struggled for years with cloudy and changing legal status one step closer to state sanction.
Eighteen applicants in King County and just 15 in the rest of Washington have first dibs on consideration. None is south of Tacoma or Shelton, and none is in Eastern Washington.
Three applications are for shops in Tacoma. All are proposed conversions from existing medical shops. Today, they do business as the Joint on Pacific Avenue, the Herbal Gardens on South 28th Street and the Green Tiki Cannabis Company on South 38th Street. Relocation could be in the cards for some of them.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to be recognized as a legitimate business,” said Louis Archuleta, owner of the Herbal Gardens, which opened in 2011.
Archuleta said Tacoma originally gave him a business license, then ordered him to shut down, but more recently allowed him to operate.
He said he was left to wonder: “Is tomorrow the day they drag me, my wife and my child out in the street and take me to jail for something they gave me a license for?”
Today, he says he’s thankful to local and state officials. “I’m thankful that we are in the position that we are. It’s a position I believe that we’ve earned.”
Federal law says marijuana is illegal, but Washington voters approved medical marijuana in 1998. The law didn’t allow for retail sales, but hundreds of stores have sprung up nonetheless.
After voters approved retail sales of recreational marijuana three years ago, calls for the Legislature to regulate medical marijuana sales intensified. Lawmakers decided this year to reconcile recreational and medical marijuana businesses into one regulated system.
Until the Legislature acted, governments were reluctant to take the initiative in overseeing medical-marijuana stores, said Christy Stanley, owner of Green Tiki.
It’s “kind of like the polar bear swim,” Stanley said, “where everybody’s standing on the edge of the icy water in their underwear. ... They (were) just waiting for someone to make the first move and jump in.”
The cannabis board is waiting for a consultant’s analysis of how much marijuana Washington consumes before deciding how many stores to license. The deadline for the final report has been pushed back, and it’s now due Dec. 15.