Marijuana production –– growing on the Key Peninsula

Sara Thompson Maturing plants at Bud Brothers in Oak Harbor Photo courtesy of Bud Brothers

Editor's note: This is the third article in a three-part series on marijuana and the Key Peninsula.

Marijuana is big business, and growing marijuana is where that business begins. Washington state has collected more than $130.5 million in excise taxes and $40 million in sales taxes in the last year and a half, according to 502 Data, a website that tracks marijuana sales. Pierce County has collected nearly $10.6 million from excise taxes.

Marijuana growing on the Key Peninsula dates back to the ‘70s, when an influx of renegades took advantage of the rural, “let-well-enough-alone”setting. One member of the early Key Peninsula marijuana growers, who asked to remain anonymous, said he arrived in 1978, after about a decade of experience growing and selling in Arizona and Hawaii.

“It was a bit like the old West back then,”he said. “Land and water were cheap, you could live in a double-wide, and with about $15,000, you could get started.”

Growing was all outside, and everyone learned as they went.

“We flew by the seats of our pants,”he recalled. Over time, the growers honed their skills —combining strains, understanding how to grow clones (cuttings from plants allowing for pure strains from mother plants) and improving the yields.

By the mid-1980s, with the advent of indoor lights, growing moved inside. It meant that a grower could get two or three harvests in a year rather than be limited to one. At the same time, Californians arrived, bringing additional strains and expertise. “Guerilla gardening”took off.

That all changed in the early 1990s, when methamphetamine arrived. Those seeking a cheap high moved to the cheaper, more addictive drug.

“The pot market fell off the cliff,”the KP grower said.

At about that time, he was arrested, served a short time in jail and paid a significant fine. He quit growing and selling in the recreational market but had connections with those requesting medical marijuana —primarily AIDS patients. Although medical marijuana was not yet decriminalized, he was able to provide for that market. He feels he was left alone by the authorities at that time because he was serving a population in need.

“Most of the marijuana grown in Western Washington was grown on the Key Peninsula or near Bonney Lake,”he said. “Many of those growers are gone now. They lived hard lives.”

Medical Collectives

In 1998, when medical marijuana was decriminalized, the state allowed collectives to form. Patients and their caregivers could come together to grow their own supply and also donate to other patients.

Clint Pipkin, who now owns Herb-N-Wellness, said that early collective members had to feel their way —it was not entirely clear what was allowed. But he also said that for anyone wanting to be as legal as possible, joining a collective was the way to go. By 2000, collective gardens were pretty well established. Pipkin estimates that there are about a dozen of collectives on the Key Peninsula now.

Up to 10 patients (or their caregivers) could join in a collective, each growing up to 15 plants. Surplus cannabis could be sold or donated to other patients. The medicinal shops that first opened on the KP in 2010 served as a place to bring surplus and sell to those with medical authorization.

In July 2016, the rules pertaining to collective gardens will change. The number of people in a collective will be limited to four, and each person will be allowed to grow a maximum of six plants.

In addition, the stores will have to be licensed and will be required to purchase cannabis from state-licensed producers. At this time, growing for personal recreational use is illegal but some state legislators have said that they hope to introduce legislation that would allow individuals to grow small numbers of plants.

“The black market is still alive and well,”Pipkin said. “And I don’t think it is going to go away any time soon.”

Licensed Production

The Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), now named the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, has written the rule that, in the words of Initiative 502, “takes marijuana out of the hands of illegal drug organizations and brings it under a tightly regulated, state-licensed system similar to that for controlling hard alcohol.”

In December 2013, a 30-day window opened to apply for growing and processing licenses. No further applications are available. According to the WSLCB website, more than 19,000 applications were received. To date, about 700 licenses have been issued. All others are pending. Six applications came from the Key Peninsula and one has been approved.

Chelsea Luke Brown, who with four other partners, owns Bud Brothers in Oak Harbor, described how their business became operational. The partners had a combination of backgrounds including tech, marketing, customer service and experience with growing medical marijuana.

After a few false starts in locating a site, they found a warehouse owner on Whidbey Island interested in leasing to marijuana growers. Once the warehouse was identified, it took nearly a year to demolish and rebuild the interior space. They planted their first crop in February 2015 and harvested about three months later.

Brown describes cultivation as an art. She emphasized the importance of appreciation for the quality of what they grow. The planting, feeding, trimming and timing of the harvest are done with great care.

State oversight is substantial. Producers can bring in their own stock within 15 days of receiving a license but then they can buy plants or seeds only from licensed growers. All plants must be tagged individually. Every lot must be tested for quality, including THC level (how strength is assessed). There are strict parameters for security cameras.

Once the buds are harvested, they are cut, dried, trimmed and packaged. Many growers are also processors —the plants are turned into resin or extracts. Retailers take it from there.

Six months after the first planting, Bud Brothers is sustainable —the costs are now covered and the business has the capacity to more than double its harvest once the electrical system has been upgraded. Brown said that they were worried about how they would be received in Oak Harbor, a relatively conservative community.

“We were very open about what we are doing, and we have been welcomed,”she said.