The businesses in Washington’s state-licensed marijuana industry are playing the dating game.
With sales due to start July 8, the people allowed to grow pot are matching up with the people who are allowed to sell it.
For the Cooper family, growers in Wenatchee, that means “meeting with them, looking at their locations, getting a general feel for their type of management style,” said Eric Cooper, the 56-year-old part owner of Monkey Grass Farms. “Are they more businesslike, or are they more, ‘Let’s go out back and let’s smoke a joint?’”
There’s an urgency to the relationship-building. Stores can’t open with nothing to put on their shelves, and they are competing for what could be a squeezed supply.
Few growers will have had enough time to raise a crop and turn it into a drug ready to be smoked, let alone the further processing needed to make the extracts and pot-infused food that are growing in popularity.
There is little doubt that demand for the state’s first legal marijuana will be intense. A shortage could be in the making.
“Initially, I think they could run out of product. We’ll just have to see,” said Rick Garza, who as director of the Liquor Control Board is leading the implementation of the new state-licensed industry.
“Right now there’s definitely a shortage,” retail applicant Don Muridan said. “The supply is not going to meet the demand. I can assure you of that.”
Muridan expects his central Tacoma store will be among those that open July 8. It’s at 3111 S. Pine Street in the industrial Nalley Valley, one of four in Tacoma that are among the 37 applicants farthest along in the state process of licensing.
The property was one of two Rainier Wellness stores Muridan operated, selling unregulated medical marijuana. He hopes the other, just south of downtown, can follow soon in converting to recreational sales.
“We’ve only been able to secure 50 pounds our first week,” he said.
That would be enough to serve just 800 customers buying the full ounce they are allowed by state law. But most people are unlikely to buy so much. And Muridan won’t let them, he said.
“We’re going to ration the products,” he said, probably limiting each customer to a quarter of an ounce. That’s still enough to produce as many as a dozen or so joints.
He also plans to close at 7 p.m. at first, instead of staying open until midnight as allowed by state rules.
And don’t expect to go to stores the first week for a marijuana cookie or brownie.
No stores are expected to carry pot-infused food right away. Kitchens that produce such edibles have not yet been licensed by the Agriculture Department, although some are in the pipeline.
State regulators hope that any shortage will work itself out as time goes on.
The liquor board has licensed 79 producers and processors to grow 566,000 square feet of plants.
Only a few will be ready when the board hopes to license at least 20 stores on July 7 that can then open as early as the following day — just more than four months after the state licensed its first grower.
Early growers call shots
If not for the opportunity to grow legal weed, Eric Cooper would be on a beach chair in Maui.
He looks the part, in an aloha shirt, jeans, sandals and a bushy silver goatee. The grandfather’s musical taste inclines toward the Beatles and “island music,” Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett. He started smoking pot at age 14.
A contractor for years, the housing bubble burst around him. Since then, he’s worked as a registered nurse and opened a medical marijuana store, where he found a master grower to set up a garden in a three-car garage.
Now he and his family, the grower and two other partners have moved to a huge former beer warehouse near Wenatchee and spent roughly $100,000 in start-up costs for a facility that includes 300,000 watts of light and enough lumber, the former builder said, to frame a whole house.
He says he’s thinking for the long term by not harvesting his buds before they’re ready — as he says some growers are doing — and by not gouging buyers.
“The first couple months is going to be terrible as far as price goes,” he said, predicting many competitors will charge high prices. “But we’d rather have a long-term relationship with our retailers.”
A short supply means the Coopers’ crop is in demand. They get calls every day.
But the Monkey Grass plants are already spoken for, at least the ones closest to harvest.
“We have 100 percent of our crop sold to select retailers that we’ve met that we feel that will market and brand our product the way we want it to be,” said Katey Cooper, Eric’s daughter and a former Target manager, “and we also of course came up with select deals that benefit both parties.”
With its leverage, Monkey Grass is demanding a share of a store’s shelf space in exchange for a percentage of the grower’s crop.
Monkey Grass should have plenty of product.
Its indoor grow near Wenatchee is in the state’s top tier for size, at 21,000 square feet of plants. And Cooper is optimistic he will be licensed to also grow outdoors soon. He’s already built a fence around his planned farm.
Two months after bringing its first plant to the warehouse, the company is getting close to its first harvest of 100 plants, but then it needs to dry, package, test and deliver its product. So that means no Monkey Grass until mid-July.
Cooper hopes the weed supply steadies by October. By then, he plans on being on that beach chair where he was headed before deciding state-licensed marijuana sales were too good an opportunity to pass up.
“This would be too much fun,” he figured. “And it is. It’s like the Wild West.”
NOTE: This story was reported in coordination with Anna King of public radio’s Northwest News Network.