It's 9 p.m. on a Monday night in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood and the door of Uncle Ike's pot shop can't seem to stay closed. A stream of customers flows in and out as a slow rain falls, just like it has for most of the spring. It's only the 16th of the month, but it's already been the fourth wettest April on record. As they prepare for 4/20, no one seems to notice tonight's mist as they walk into the store, IDs in hand, or when they come back out with matching little brown paper bags of pot.
It turns out the international stoner holiday becomes a lot like any other consumer holiday when the legal weed industry gets involved. Inside the store, shoppers can find grams of weed for $2, 4 full-gram joints for $5, and $15 half-ounces. Are you more into concentrates? A gram of 90-percent THC CO2 oil will run you just $9. Would you rather eat your weed than smoke it? Don't leave without some brownies, just $1 a pop. And since it just passed nine p.m., Uncle Ike has a special late-night sale: $1 joints for everyone.
Welcome to weedy Washington, where one of the country's most developed legal markets has flooded retail shelves with cannabis, driving down the price of pot and shuttering small weed farms in the process. That has angered the farmers that supplied Washington's older, unregulated medical market, who argue the legal market has been structured to favor only the most well-funded businesses, including one that was recently listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange.
Consumers don't seem to mind who is selling their weed, though. Roughly $1.9 billion of cannabis has been sold in the state since it went for sale less than four years ago; that number will be over $2 billion by the end of the day on 4/20.
So what drives the billions of dollars in weed sales? Turns out Washington is one of the most crowded legal weed markets in the country, with more pot brands and unique products than Colorado and Oregon combined, according to BDS Analytics. According to the Colorado consulting firm, whicht tracks the legal weed market, over a 12-month period in 2017 and 2016 there were more than 1,000 brands producing over 45,000 unique products in Washington state. During the same period, Colorado and Oregon individually had less than 11,000 products made by fewer than 500 brands.
That heated competition between different brands – which is largely a product of the state's unique decision to bar pot growers from opening stores and selling directly to consumers – has dropped the price of weed and forced pot processors to get wildly creative with their offerings. Washingtonians have access to a lot of different ways to get high, from pot-infused sparkling waters and Keurig coffee cups to syringes filled with pot compounds you've probably never heard of.
Navigating through all of these products can be difficult, especially when your local dispensary has so many options the menu swells into the double digits. Have A Heart, a retailer with a location just steps from Downtown Seattle's Pike Place Market, claims to sell between 2,000 and 2,800 unique products. Not all pot shops are this crowded, Seattle stores like Ruckus Recreational, Dockside Cannabis and Origins Cannabis offer more curated menus that still manage to cover most niches.
While the market might seem saturated, this industry is still relatively new – and the state is still working out some of the kinks. Residents in Washington passed legalization in November of 2012 – the same day as Colorado – and opened retail stores in January of 2014. Since then, anyone in Washington state, resident or non-resident alike, can walk into a store and legally purchase up to one ounce of cannabis flower, a pound of solid edibles, 72 ounces of liquid edibles, and seven grams of pot concentrates.
Finding a place to smoke all of that weed, however, might be a little more difficult. You can legally smoke as much pot as you want in your private home, but it is illegal to consume marijuana in any public place. So, if you rent your home and your landlord doesn't allow weed, or if you are visiting the state and your hotel is not weed-friendly, you may not have any access to a legal place to smoke.
That hasn't stopped many people from smoking, especially in liberal parts of the state like Seattle, where city law makes it only a $27 ticket if you get caught puffing in public. And city cops are even instructed to reserve those tickets as a last resort.
The state is also figuring out how to make the industry sustainable – Washington's has had mixed results with managing the environmental impact. Millions of pounds of compostable pot waste get sent to landfills, thanks to strict state rules, and the industry has been dogged by reports of illegal pesticide use. But regulators are also trying to be a leader in organic certification for pot. The Washington Department of Agriculture is creating their own "organic" certification program, which would be the first government-sponsored program that certifies pot farms for using organic processes.
Some farms aren't waiting for the state's program to start using organic principals, often turning to a private company called Clean Green Certified to certify their practices. Farms like Gold Leaf Gardens, Puffin Farm, Green Barn Farms, Lazy Bee Gardens and Seattle Green Bud produce some of the state's leading producers of pesticide-free pot.
Want to see this all in action? That might be tough. Washington's strict rules surrounding pot farms make it tough to visit any of the places that grow the state's weed, but there are a couple of specialty tour companies, including Seattle's Kush Tours, that provide a way to get a back stage look at the local weed industry.
The state's regulations also make it hard to find cannabis events – if you're looking for trendy weed dinners and pop-up pot events you'll have more luck in Los Angeles or Denver. But there are some events that, while lacking actual pot consumption, are built all around cannabis. Goodship, a Seattle edible company, hosts a lecture series dedicated to "Higher Education," one of Seattle's yoga studios offers weed-centric classes and the yearly Canna Con fills a conventional hall with weed entrepreneurs and gadgets.
Pot cafes are starting to give smokers a place to consume pot off the street in cities like Denver and San Francisco, but don't expect one to open in Seattle anytime soon. In 2015, state legislators made it a felony to operate any type of pot lounge.
It's a bit ironic that Washington's laws prevent pot events, because one particular weed event in Washington has had a hand in moving the entire country's legalization effort forward. Seattle's Hempfest, which draws hundreds of thousands of people a year, is one of the longest-running and largest cannabis festivals in the world. When it started in 1991, only 25 percent of the country supported legalization and mere possession of pot could land you in a Seattle jail.
Arrests were frequent during those early days of Hempfest, but the organizers kept fighting for reform in the face of long odds. Seven years after the festival kicked off, Washington became one of the first states to pass a medical marijuana, and 21 years later, Washington became the first state in the country to fully legalize pot.
And yet, Washington's weed laws are complicated. We are the only state in the country that legalized weed without giving adults the right to grow it at home. Only residents with a medical card can grow their own cannabis.
Washington is also one of the most punitive states when it comes to driving with weed. The initiative that legalized weed in Washington also made it illegal to drive with more than 5 nanograms of THC per liter in your blood. Unlike alcohol blood levels, which can be roughly correlated to an approximate number of drinks, differences in individual body chemistry and other factors make it difficult to predict how much THC will be in your blood after a given number of joints or bong hits. Establishing a specific limit for how much THC can be in a driver's bloodstream has been called unscientific because a blood limit doesn't accurately measure impairment.
Those draconian laws are a bit ironic given Washington's long and friendly relationship with the earth's greatest herb. What makes weed and Washington go hand in hand? Maybe it's the state's natural beauty – there are three national parks within a two-hour drive of Seattle, a remarkable feature for a metropolitan area with more than 3.7 million people. Or maybe it's the weather – the customers leaving Uncle Ike's with baggies of pot showed how weed is an easy companion to Western Washington's dreary winter.
Whatever the reason, there's little question that weed is a natural companion to Washington. Go take a stoned ferry ride across the deep blue waters of Puget Sound; puff on a joint under the towering rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula; or eat an edible and bounce between different cafés and nightclubs in Seattle. It'll all start to make sense, and you'll see why we call ourselves the Evergreen State.