Northwest Medical Marijuana Guide
Pot grown in other states doesn't necessarily qualify as medical cannabis under Washington State law, but that doesn't stop scores of California growers from trying to sell their bud to Seattle dispensaries.
"I get one to three calls a day from people trying to sell me bud, and most of them are out-of-state calls," says Muraco Kyashna-tocha, director of Green Buddha Patient Co-op in Ravenna. She's received sales pitches recently from California, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and even the South. "I had a call from Arkansas last week saying, 'Hi, you buying bud? I have good meds to sell you.'"
"I say, 'Don't ever call me again,'" explains Kyashna-tocha, who boasts that her co-op carries only local, organic cannabis from growers she trusts. Knowing exactly what sort of product she's carrying allows patients to select the cannabis best suited to their conditions (such as pain management).
But Green Buddha appears to be the exception. While it's impossible to know what percentage of product in this unregulated market comes from out of state, some people are willing to speculate. More than half of the cannabis found in Seattle dispensaries comes from beyond Washington's borders, Kyashna-tocha ballparks. Likewise, Luke Westgate, who grows medical cannabis, also figures that number above 50 percent.
Exporting pot into Washington may be particularly lucrative for growers, given the patchwork of medical cannabis laws across the country. While regulations from our state's Department of Health restrict collective gardens to 45 plants, large operations are widely tolerated in California. That economy of scale makes it cheaper to grow marijuana there than in the small, indoor gardens typical of Washington. Add to that California's sunny climate—which fosters more outdoor cultivation, requires no expensive electricity for indoor lights, and produces larger plants—and profit margins bloom even more.
Not all of that cannabis is medical, either. Plenty of illicit operations crop up in national forests and state parks.
"This is organized crime at its finest," Westgate continues. "They grow 60 to 100 acres at a time, and they can afford to sell it for much less. I just don't think people understand how much of an invasion is here."
In the University District, Urban Roots director Michael Lick says he only carries local cannabis but believes the growers have "oversaturated the market" in other states, adding, "that's why people are trying to move stuff out of California."
The result, according to some members of the local cannabis community, is a surge of lower-quality pot. Lacking medical standards, it can be laden with pesticides or mold, the result of poor techniques for curing and shipping the bud.
Which isn't to say customers aren't seeking quality, local cannabis.
On a recent Wednesday, about 15 purveyors circled a large room with tables of local strains at the Northwest Cannabis Market in White Center. "Every time we open the door, 250 people walk in," says director Mike Keysor. The farmers market—which focuses on small nearby producers, just like farmers markets selling food—has grown so popular, he says, the market went from weekly to daily on March 30.
Still, the purveyors that day at the farmers market lamented the out-of-state pot. "I think the California cannabis here is affecting the ability of people putting money into growing the finest products," said vendor Greg Maddox.
Cannabis from California can cost up to $2,000 less per pound than pot grown here, which could force local growers to lower their prices or standards. "If you are growing 1,000 plants outdoors with a crew compared to someone growing 15 plants in their basement, it's a completely different scene," Kyashna-tocha explains. "It's impossible to compete."
As a result of that competition, some dispensaries may carry out-of-state pot that costs less and looks good, but may have a lower potency and a mysterious provenance.
In response, the Association of Medical Marijuana Producers and Processors recently formed to promote the "highest quality Washington gardens." That group has set a standard of "patient-ready cannabis," certifying the herb is free of pesticides and comes from local producers.
However, it's buyer beware on the open market. Some experts say that customers should look for cannabis that doesn't smell of mold and hasn't been shrink-wrapped for shipping. "Local bud is still loose," Kyashna-tocha says.
In the long term, a solution could require regulation and inspection. But Westgate warns, "I really don't know how you regulate other than letting people come into your grow and monitor it. Some people think that would be an invasion of privacy."