Marijuana Industry Shakes 'Cheech and Chong' Stereotype, Improves in Public Eye


When Freedom Market decided to expand its recreational marijuana business to Cathlamet two years ago, only two of three county commissioners approved its application.

And again, when the shop went to renew its license this spring, it passed without County Commissioner Dan Cothren's approval.

Despite that dissent, the shop's popularity has grown, and the owners report steadily increasing sales. Store co-owner Todd Bratton said a lot of the customers are Cathlamet-area residents, and that number seems to be growing alongside rising sales.

"(August) was our biggest month to date," said Bratton. "We are hoping to continue that trend through the winter. And it's still a lot of locals coming in."

That might be surprising for some residents in Wahkiakum County, where the 2012 initiative to legalize recreational marijuana garnered only 48% "yes" votes. (The measure passed the state with 55.7% approval.)

Though industry officials acknowledge that there's still some pushback against cannabis, they say the business has made great strides in "normalizing" marijuana in the last five years. A recent Gallup poll shows that 66% of U.S. citizens support legalizing the drug -- an all-time high, and a 10-point boost over the rate when Washington legalized the substance seven years ago.

Industry officials credit the change of heart to time, which has helped dispel some of the misconceptions that roused opposition to legal cannabis.

"I think what you are seeing is sort of a natural progression, now that we are five years in. People have started to see that the industry as a whole are committed to a safe marketplace that is fully regulated and keeps products out of the hands of the kids," said Vicki Christophersen, executive director for the Washington CannaBusiness Association.

As more stores open across the state, harmful stereotypes of "stumbling and illiterate" Cheech and Chong-type characters flocking to town are proved wrong, Christophersen said.

"What we've seen is that you walk into a retail store, and the clientele that are shopping there are as representative of the community as the folks walking down the street. ... You see people of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and professions."

She added that the "fear we are going to have Cheech and Chong running around the state ... has not come to fruition. We actually see folks like soccer moms and dads participating in the industry."

Fears that legal marijuana would make the product more accessible for children was another large driver for opposition to the 2012 measure, Christophersen said. But in the last five years, the industry has shown it's effectively keeping cannabis products out of the hands of kids, she said.

According to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board's annual report, the board recorded 78 violations for selling marijuana to minors in 2018. That's compared to 550 violations recorded for selling liquor to minors.

And the rate of marijuana use among high schoolers has remained relatively flat over the last eight years, Christophersen said. She pointed to the Healthy Youth Survey, a statewide, biannual survey that measures students' self-reported alcohol and marijuana use.

The 2010 survey found that about 26% of high school seniors and 20% of high school sophomores said they had used marijuana in the last month. In 2018, about 26% of seniors and 18% of sophomores said the same thing.

In Cowlitz County, the so-called "current use of marijuana" rate rose from 24% of seniors in 2010 to 31% in 2018. However, the sophomore rate dropped from 22% to 16%.

Increased marijuana use among kids raised concerns in Castle Rock when the city in 2017 considered lifting its moratorium on recreational marijuana. The city ultimately decided to allow cannabis shops, but city ordinances limit where such businesses can open.

Less than a year after, the city's first retail marijuana shop opened in the Crossroads Plaza shopping center.

Tru Greenthumb's business neighbors were initially apprehensive about adding the cannabis store to their little strip mall. One shop owner noted that her customers were "shocked and surprised" by the shop, and their responses were not positive.

But after about 10 months of operations, the nervousness about the shop seems to have faded, said Castle Rock Mayor Paul Helenberg.

"I don't even think about it being there, really. ... I don't hear anyone complaining anymore," Helenberg said.

Tru Greenthumb owner Alya Savage did not return phone calls for comment last week, and the other businesses in the shopping center declined to comment for the article.

Castle Rock Police Chief Scott Neves said his agency has not seen an increase in police calls relating to the pot shop. And though the city and county have seen in increase in underage marijuana users since the substance was legalized in 2012, he said it was unclear whether the new pot shop compounded the problem.

"Marijuana was already readily available across the state, even as close as 10 minutes away in Longview or Kelso," he said.

Law enforcement officials across the state do have continuing safety concerns about the rise of legal pot, said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

There is some evidence that underage use is increasing, and law impaired driving also is on the rise, he said. According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, DUI-related fatalities in the state dropped between 2005 to 2011. However, starting in 2012 they began steadling rising, from 215 in 2011 to 278 in 2016. And DUI cases also have risen since the advent of legal recreational marijuana.

Perhaps more importantly, the legalization of marijuana has created a "permissive legal atmosphere" that is making it harder to police large scale, clandestine distribution of marijuana, Strachan said. King, Adams, Grays Harbor and other counties have discovered illegal marijuana distribution networks using foreign nationals to transmit pot grown in legal marijuana grow operations, he said. Much of it goes out of state.

In addition, Strachan said, the continued presence of black market marijuana is unfair to legal marijuana businesses.

Cannabis certainly hasn't earned complete public acceptance statewide, or even Cowlitz County.

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center, 81 of 281 Washington cities (28 percent) still ban marijuana business altogether. Other cities allow some marijuana-related business but prohibit others.

For example, Woodland has banned retail sale of cannabis but allows businesses that produce and process the product.

"To be fair, there are still a lot of communities in the state that have not changed their minds," Christophersen said.

And the public perception of marijuana still isn't "normalized," she said.

Bratton, the Cathlamet shop co-owner, said several of his customers have asked the business to put up fences or gates around the parking lot. Those buyers might be "pretty nervous of people knowing" they buy marijuana, he said.

As a co-owner of the Longview Freedom Market, too, Bratton said requests for privacy are more common in Cathlamet.

"I think a lot of people prefer to keep it private, and that's totally fine. ... Word gets around pretty fast in a town of 600 people."

Christophersen said it's a "slow and steady" race to earn the public's trust and acceptance.

"There is still fear out there. There are still people who are vehemently opposed to the legalization of cannabis and would like to see it go back to where it was," she said. "So that means we have a lot of work to do."