As clock ticks down to legal weed in Washington, pot shops frantically sort out final details

With the clock ticking down to the start of legal weed sales in Washington state, store owners hoping to start selling on Tuesday are consumed by details as they try to make sure there's pot on the shelves.

At Cannabis City, the only recreational marijuana shop that's ready to open in Seattle, owner James Lathrop has hired an events company to provide crowd control, arranged for a food truck and free water for those who might spend hours waiting outside, and rented a portable toilet.

He can only hope his initial 10-pound supply is enough to stone the multitude, and says he may limit purchases to ensure everyone can go home with at least a 2-gram package of history.

A hundred miles to the north, John Evich is trying to figure out how to get the marijuana to his store in Bellingham quickly once it's approved for a license, which should happen Monday. He's considered everything from loading the pot onto his commercial crab boat and rushing it across Puget Sound to renting a helicopter.

One year and eight months after voters in Washington and Colorado stunned much of the world by legalizing marijuana, the sale of heavily regulated and taxed cannabis begins here this week, with the first few stores opening amid talk of high prices, shortages and rationing. Sales began in Colorado at the start of the year.

As many as 20 shops in Washington, out of a planned 300-plus, should receive their licenses on Monday, officials say. They could open at 8 a.m. the next day, but how many planned to be up and running remained unclear as nervous excitement built among industry hopefuls and their potential customers. While Seattle had just one store ready, at least two could open in some smaller cities, including Bellingham, Tacoma and Spokane.

Some shops were frantically calling growers, trying to ensure they'd have enough product. More than 2,600 people applied to grow the marijuana that will be sold, but fewer than 100 have been approved by the state Liquor Control Board's swamped licensing investigators, and many won't be ready to harvest until later this summer.

Even those who already made agreements to buy marijuana — at exorbitant prices, in many cases — weren't sure when it would arrive. State rules require a 24-hour "quarantine" before growers can ship it to customers. What time the stores receive their licenses on Monday will dictate when they can place their order with the growers, and thus how soon the growers can transport it to the stores, which might be hundreds of miles away.

Once it arrives, the stores must verify their bar-coded inventory and enter it into the state's tracking system before they can sell it. Few had confidence the software would be glitch-free.

The challenges were daunting enough that Adam Schmidt, of Clear Choice Cannabis in Tacoma, said he was leaning against opening his store this week even though he expected to be among the first to get a license.

"I don't want people to be waiting in line for four hours and then I have to come out and tell them we don't have any more," he said.

Lathrop, whose shop is south of downtown Seattle, and Evich, an investor in Bellingham's Top Shelf Cannabis, had secured agreements to buy dried marijuana buds from Nine Point Growth Industries in Bremerton, on the Kitsap Peninsula. Workers there rushed to sort its 30-pound harvest into thousands of 2-gram packages, said Gregory Stewart, Nine Point's owner. He spent some of last week struggling with the logistics of transporting the pot to his customers, which also included a shop in southwest Washington, when they all want it immediately.

Evich brainstormed ways to get the bud on his shelves as soon as possible. He thought of using a helicopter to pick it up from Nine Point, but it seemed unlikely helicopter companies would agree. His crab boat might draw the Coast Guard's attention, but driving and waiting in line for a state ferry seemed too slow. Maybe a friend's Bayliner would work.

Once it reaches his store — however it gets there — he said the various strains would fetch $12 to $25 per gram. People often pay $8 to $12 per gram at Washington's unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries.

In Seattle, among those who planned to buy some of the first pot at Cannabis City was Alison Holcomb, the lawyer who drafted Washington's law. She said it was a good opportunity to remind people of the big-picture arguments for ending nearly a century of prohibition, including keeping nonviolent, adult marijuana users out of jail; redirecting profits away from criminal groups; and ending racial disparities in who gets busted.

"No one thought legalization could happen in our lifetime," she said. "I think this is going to be a little overwhelming for me."


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