Courtesy of Libby Haines-Marchel

Libby Haines-Marchel thought she had taken all the necessary steps to open a pot shop.

Shortly after Washington voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational cannabis in 2012, Haines-Marchel applied for a retailer’s license to service Rock Island, a scattering of gas stations and food marts in Douglas County (population: 788), not far from her in-laws’ home. Despite the name, the city is not an island, but a scenic highway pit stop along the Columbia River. She was one of six applicants to throw in her name for one of two at-large allotments in the county. Haines-Marchel, with her lottery luck, topped the list.

She established a limited liability corporation called Rock Island Chronics in April 2014. She asked a developer to start laying out storefront plans for a plot near the highway. She reached out to growers and investors and planned to move her family east from Seattle.

Like others who joined the “green rush” after Washington voters legalized weed, Haines-Marchel—who is raising four kids, including a high school junior looking toward college—saw marijuana as her ticket to financial security. She had worked for 18 years as an office manager for a towing company, but never made enough money to wean off public assistance, including Section 8 housing and food stamps. Nor did she receive paid sick leave, health benefits or the option to invest in a 401K.

“It’s a billion-dollar industry,” Haines-Marchel said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

But Rock Island Chronics never opened for business. State regulators wouldn’t allow it.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) rejected Haines-Marchel’s application for a marijuana retail license because her spouse, Brock Marchel, is serving a 44-year sentence for homicide. Brock was convicted in 1998 when he was 19. The couple met at a Washington State Prison in 2006, while Haines-Marchel attended a prison graduation ceremony for a family member. Libby Haines and Brock Marchel married in 2010, when Brock Marchel still had more than three decades to serve. The couple communicates through phone calls and weekly visits.

According to Washington State law, spouses constitute true "parties of interest," meaning all the people who need to pass regulations for a business to get a cannabis retail license. Washington State usually denies any applicant whose criminal background check score surpasses eight points on a scale set up by the Liquor and Cannabis Board. Haines-Marchel never accumulated any points, but her husband racked up twelve.

The WSLCB maintains that Haines-Marchel only has one option if she wants to sell legal weed. “She would have to get a divorce,” said board spokesman Brian Smith.

Marchel has no intention of separating from her husband. She appealed the denial, first with an administrative law judge and then in King County Superior Court. Both sided with the Liquor and Cannabis Board. On Monday, June 5, her case, which could set a precedent for would-be marijuana sellers, goes to the Washington Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, despite scoring a top slot in the license lottery, Haines-Marchel has missed out on the early, lucrative years of the legal weed boom. These day, she handles administrative work for friends and family and drives for a rideshare company to make ends meet.

Washington State, represented by Assistant Attorney General Rose Weston, maintains it has a “compelling interest” in keeping people with serious criminal convictions out of the marijuana industry due to the “long history of criminality” associated with the drug. Provisions in the law that make spouses parties of interest in marijuana businesses and disqualify applicants with certain criminal histories “are legitimate and necessary means to accomplish this purpose,” Weston wrote in a court filing.

Without automatically making spouses parties of interest and restricting people with criminal histories, the Attorney General’s office says, people with criminal convictions who otherwise would be disqualified from selling legal weed could use their spouse as a “straw person” to get around the Liquor and Cannabis Board’s regulations.

But Haines-Marchel argues that the WSLCB is violating her marital right to separate her property from her husband. After all, when she was applying for the license, she asked Mr. Marchel to sign a contract in front of a notary public resigning any rights to her pot business. That agreement stated: “It is my intention to knowingly and willingly make this agreement that I will relinquish, irrevocably deny and renounce any and ‘all’ ownership interest and management decisions in Rock Island Chronics.” Washington State law allows married couples to separate property.

On a more fundamental level, Haines-Marchel says she shouldn’t be blocked from a financial opportunity based on who she loves. As Robert Stevenson, her pro bono attorney, put it: “It is placing on Libby the criminality of her husband. That’s a violation of the Constitution.”

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions on Haines-Marchel’s case from The Stranger, referring us instead to written court arguments.

Since states started legalizing marijuana in 2012, advocates and journalists have shed light on regulations that disproportionately block black and brown people from entering the market. Last year, a report by Buzzfeed highlighted the irony of marijuana convictions keeping people of color, who bear the brunt of the War on Drugs, from participating in the booming industry. Haines-Marchel’s case takes this exclusionary aspect of legal weed another step further: Regulators are blocking a black woman from entering the market, not for her record, but someone else’s.

When weed became legal in Washington, Haines-Marchel couldn't help but think of her community members who have gone to prison for marijuana crimes. “In my culture, it’s been used as a reason for us to be harassed,” she says from her duplex in West Seattle. “Once they made it legal, to me personally, that is a slap in the face.” Shocking, yes, but legal marijuana also presented promise to Haines-Marchel, an opportunity to get off food stamps and Section 8. "I want to own a marijuana business to be financially free," she says.

Legal documents, industry magazines, and laundry clutter her dining table. She keeps all her most important documents in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag, along with several pounds of manila folders and court filings. Just like she did her own research before pursuing her legal pot business, Haines-Marchel has also been handling much of the legal work in her case against the Liquor and Cannabis Board. “I’m more of an assistant,” said Stevenson, her attorney.

Haines-Marchel says she’s hopeful that the Washington Court of Appeals will rule in her favor, but she’s willing to take her case to the state supreme court.

“This is a part of history for me,” Haines-Marchel says. “I am a black woman, exercising my right to be married and the state has to uphold my marriage contract. This is another form of discrimination.”