Politics & Government

Marijuana grower hopes to outlast early ups and downs

First there was too little marijuana for state-licensed recreational pot stores, then too much of it for the limited number of stores to handle.

As the newly legal market ebbs and flows, grower Toni Reita figures nobody is breaking even yet, let alone making a profit. Certainly, she’s not. But her farm outside Goldendale, Reita says, is lean enough to survive the early waves.

“I’ll be here next year,” Reita said. “I may still be driving a car old enough to vote, but I’ll be here.”

Reita, who was among the marijuana growers who spoke to The News Tribune for a series of stories last summer, is one of the state-licensed growers whose product has arrived on shelves only recently because they are growing outside.

While climate-controlled warehouses filled with grow lights have been turning out pot since before stores opened in July, the fields of Eastern Washington had to wait until fall.

In the meantime, the competition multiplied. As the state approaches 100 retail licenses, it has issued more than 320 producer licenses.

The proliferation of growers and the dump of sun-grown marijuana may be bringing sky-high prices down to earth.

“Certainly with good supply, we’re seeing marijuana out there for sale per gram not much different than what you’re going to see on the black market or in the dispensaries, and that’s with all the taxes tacked on,” Liquor Control Board Chairwoman Sharon Foster said in an interview earlier this month.

Prices in Tacoma vary, but a customer buying in bulk might pay as little as $8 per gram. That’s the lowest price at 6th Avenue’s Mary Mart, but shoppers there will pay more, at least $15, for a single gram. Those prices are likely competitive with unlicensed medical-marijuana shops.

Falling prices and a surplus of supply are good for the customer. They are a mixed bag for businesses trying to stay afloat.

Reita harvested about 200 pounds of marijuana in October, she said. She’s sold just about 25 pounds of it, with orders for more.

Wholesalers have been buying it at as low as $2 a gram to process and package it, with retailers paying as much as $8 a gram for the bud she packages herself, Reita said. Retailers double or even quadruple the price tag for consumers, she said.

Reita and her business partner, a roommate, paid to install a fence, more than a dozen cameras and other requirements of the tightly regulated system approved by voters when they legalized marijuana in 2012. The growers hired seasonal help to plant and harvest their crop, and now are delivering it to locations as far as 300 miles away.

The cost so far, Reita said: $130,000.

But they avoid expenses that drive the price tag higher for many other growers. There’s no enormous power bill, no elaborate system for maintaining proper temperatures.

Devotees of indoor growing say those controls provide a more consistent product for consumers. Outdoor growers say their method is more natural.

Roughly half of the inventory at Mary Mart is grown outdoors. Marijuana at another Tacoma store, Clear Choice Cannabis, comes from indoor grows and greenhouses – which use the sun while also allowing for more control.

There are no frills on Reita’s 1-acre plot, just a couple of trailers where cloning, drying, storing and packaging are done. Best of all, it’s on her own property, at the end of a remote gravel road, outside the log home where she lives and where she rehabilitates rescued Rottweilers.

Reita says next year will be more productive. With a license in hand, she will be able to plant earlier in spring. That will give plants more time to acclimate before hot weather sets in – yielding as much as five times the marijuana, she said.

Who will be around to buy it? That could depend on moves in the Legislature.

The liquor board’s Foster said the board could license more stores if lawmakers relaxed the initiative’s mandate for buffer zones around places like schools and parks. It has been difficult for applicants to find locations, especially in big cities like Seattle, she said.

In other places, such as Lakewood, Puyallup and unincorporated Pierce County, local governments have simply banned the businesses. Courts have upheld the bans and lawmakers have not stepped in to overturn them.

Lawmakers could also allow some of Washington’s hundreds of medical-marijuana stores to be licensed and regulated, creating potentially many more customers for growers like Reita.

In the meantime, Reita has navigated other obstacles, like an all-cash business, and a state system for tracing marijuana from seed to sale that she said includes slow software and new bar codes at every stage of the process.

“It is controlled chaos that is not too very well controlled,” Reita said. “But that doesn’t bother me. That doesn’t bother me personally in the slightest. I like adventure. I’m mentally agile and can turn on a dime.”

But she does note that not everybody has to jump through those hurdles.

“Business is definitely booming for the illegal market,” Reita said, “because somebody can grow a few plants in their closet and go out on the street and sell it for $10 a gram and that’s pure profit.”