High in Washington: A Trip to Recreational Weed in the Northwest

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How we managed to drive past Dank’s Wonder Emporium near Olympia, Washington, I’ll never know. But somehow we overlooked the five green and white feather flags waving in the rain with the words RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA as we drove by. And the lime-green A-frame building with a banner shouting Dank’s Wonder Emporium. And our mobile marijuana dispensary app showing that we’d just driven by.

But somehow we did miss it, requiring a quick U-turn across four lanes of traffic to witness what a recreational marijuana store would really look like…and what California marijuana users may have in store.

Washington state, like Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana for adults — for better or worse. Colorado, which legalized in 2012, has been called a model for the transition to legalization in the Denver Post. Washington, which also legalized in 2012, got a bit lost in the woods on the way to legalize recreational marijuana, according to numerous bud tenders and residents we spoke with (along with this Vice article). Among the problems–complicated policies and licensing laws, a lottery for retail locations (meaning existing dispensaries had the same chance at a license as a total newbie), heavy taxation and effectively dismantling the medical marijuana system.

Since 2014, when the first recreational dispensary opened in Bellingham, Washington the state has started to find its way, with a total of 305 retail licenses allotted throughout the state, according to state licensing documents. There are plans to allow more than 500 in coming years. The number of licensed producers (growers) stands at 853, with another 519 pending. There are 778 processing licenses, with an additional 626 pending. That’s a serious green rush that isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, despite many hurdles.

Though California has sought lessons from recreational legalization in Colorado and Washington, have we learned enough? And, will recreational legalization really be all that great if Prop. 64 is passed in California?

Dank's Wonder Emporium

Dank’s Wonder Emporium

We wanted to find out what might lie ahead, so here are our experiences with three recreational retail cannabis outlets in or around Olympia, Washington. They included Dank’s Wonder Emporium, Lucid, and THC of Olympia.

  • All you need is an ID: We couldn’t believe how easy it was to walk into a retail store, compared to California dispensaries. We simply walked in, were warmly welcomed at each store, and asked for our ID’s. Anyone who is over the age of 21 may buy recreational marijuana. Unlike California dispensaries, there aren’t multiple doors that have to be unlocked or heavy security.
  • Everything is tested. Really: In California, you’re lucky to find products that have been rigorously tested, if at all. We’ve also had numerous bud tenders here tell us products have been tested, when we know for a fact that they haven’t been. It’s also a very poorly kept secret that some testing labs in California are less than scrupulous in their testing practices.  In Washington, all products go through a licensed testing process to measure THC and look for pesticides, mold and other nasty stuff.

    Lucid in Lacey, Washington

    Lucid in Lacey, Washington

  • 10 mg doses for edibles: Medical users used to 1,000mg chocolate bars will be shocked to learn that in both Washington and Colorado edibles are carefully dosed for recreational use. They must either be in individually wrapped 10mg single servings or a max of 100mg per item (ie: a tin of 10 mints at 10mg. per piece). Our bud tender at Dank’s lamented the loss of higher-dosed edibles, saying that now it just costs a lot more to get the same high.
  • It’s all about grams: In California’s medical dispensaries, it’s normal to buy 1/8 or 1/4 ounce packages of flowers. The majority of pre-packaged flowers are sold in single gram servings, which is about enough for two joints. On a Friday night at Lucid, we saw most of the purchasers looking for $10-$13 grams.
  • Pre-rolls are big business: By far the most popular retail product are pre-rolls (pre-rolled joints). Easy for novices to wrap their heads around, they don’t require extra tools (pipes, bongs) and can be discreetly carried. They also tend to be much lower in THC, since they’re typically made with “shake”, leaves and stems that have significantly lower amounts of THC.
  • Boomers can’t seem to believe pot is finally legal: We watched a couple of older Boomers pinching themselves at being able to walk into a retail store and buy weed. “Do you know what a lid is,” a gray-ponytailed gent challenged our 20-something bud tender. Not skipping a beat, he held up three fingers, demonstrating a hippie measurement of how much weed is in a baggie (or about an ounce). “My mom taught me that,” the bud tender grinned. We also watched as an older boomer just took in the wonder of a weed store, saying, “When I was younger, I never thought I’d live to see something like this. Now that I’m near the end of my life, I just can’t believe it,” he said. Though he didn’t buy a thing, before leaving, he stood by the door with his friend saying, “I just need a moment. I just need to take this all in.”

    Lucid in Lacey, Washington

    Lucid in Lacey, Washington

  • Retail stores are the happiest place on earth: Marijuana is a retail transaction here, not a medical transaction. Though California dispensaries we’ve been to range from highly clinical to more retail-like, there’s no mistaking that cannabis is still legally a medical product and not intended for recreational usage. The bud tenders we met were amazingly friendly and eager to sell. What we also noticed were distinct personalities to each store (similar to our experience with medical dispensaries in California). Lucid was slick and modern, with well-dressed bud tenders and a friendly-but-efficient sales tactics that got us in and out quickly. Dank’s welcomed us with dreadlocked howdies and a laid-back vibe that allowed for lots of questions and education about Washington cannabis. They even have a Youtube channel with marijuana news. THC of Olympia had mostly female bud tenders on the day we went, and gave us great recommendations on product. Here’s a tour of the store.
  • CB-whaaaat? CBD-rich cannabis products are gaining a lot of traction in the medical community here in California. With lower THC content (or none at all), they’re being used by patients who gain relief from pain, anxiety or depression without getting high. CBD-rich products don’t have as much cache in a recreational market where getting high is the point. Quartz calls eliminating CBD-rich meds one of the biggest pitfalls to avoid in legalization.

    THC of Olympia

    THC of Olympia

  • Retail outlets can sell pipes, bongs, etc.: Medical dispensaries are not permitted to sell paraphernalia in California. In a recreational market like Washington, those restrictions are lifted.
  • Don’t try to grow your own: Medical dispensaries in California sell clones to patients who want to grow their own plants. In Washington, it is illegal to grow your own for recreation, so don’t look for clones at recreational stores.
  • Finding a place to smoke your weed isn’t easy: It’s illegal pretty much anywhere except your home. Or your friend’s home. As long as it doesn’t bother your neighbors.

As voters head to the polls, deciding whether to legalize recreational marijuana in California, the questions still loom large about the pros and cons to instituting state mandates on every aspect of the cannabis industry. Seeing it first hand in a state that’s spent nearly five years hammering out those mandates left us wondering if recreational marijuana is really a good idea.

What’s your take?