As much as my chest swelled with pride when Al-Jazeera — Al-Ja-frickin-zeera! — covered the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in Washington state from the vantage point of my ancestral homeland of North Country Homes Boulevard, the story troubled me.
Not because the scene, of a strip mall in our northern ‘burbs, described beautifully by my former Inlander colleague Leah Sottile, was so exactly what you’d expect that it verged on self-parody.
What troubled me was the location itself, and what the location says about the way our city council and other deciders in Spokane have chosen to stunt the full bloom of possibilities, including the massive economic upside of legal, recreational marijuana.
Legal weed could transform our neighborhoods economically, and we’re forcing it to the hinterlands.
I know the strip mall in question well. It’s exactly at the Y where Division splits to become Highway 2 and Highway 395 — a convergence of suburbs, and the very nexus of everything we as a city are trying to move away from. Very little of cultural interest happens for a half-mile in any direction. There’s a Ford dealership, a Rite-Aid, a handful of national fast-food restaurants, and many, many lanes of high-speed traffic.
That’s not just the hauteur of a city slicker talking. My parents live northwest of the Y, near Pattison’s. My grandpa lives southwest a pace, down Country Homes. I have coworkers and friends who live on Five Mile, Wandermere and points beyond. No one drives to the Y unless they’re trying to get somewhere else very, very quickly.
It’s a tangle of arterials, not a hub of culture. And yet it will soon host not one, but two marijuana stores. Satori — just across Division — will open soon.
Meanwhile, the entire South Hill has not a single legal weed store. Nor does Kendall Yards. The only licensed store anywhere west of Division or south of the freeway is basically in Airway Heights.
Part of this far-flinging is state-mandated. The law itself requires a 1,000-foot-buffer zone from schools, parks, libraries, child-care facilities and a bunch of other places, which cuts down on options.
But that wouldn’t have stopped a pot shop near 14th and Grand, one the city’s much-touted CC1 “centers,” the pedestrian-focused commercial zones that Spokane’s master plan decrees shall be the nodes around which to build our next several decades of culture and commerce! CC1s are those special little places inside our hippest neighborhoods where we want people to put art galleries and restaurants, spas and hard cideries. Garland is a CC1, so are South Perry and the International District.
CC1s are the ideal place for something progressive yet commercial like one of America’s few legal pot shops to go. That is, if we viewed pot as a cultural experience like craft beer and local wine.
But the city council has decided that, no, pot is more like strip clubs and porn than it’s like alcohol and ramen burgers. In September of 2013, acting on the hand-wringing of concerned citizens in the Garland neighborhood, the council voted to prohibit marijuana stores, processors and grow operations from CC1 zoned areas. Take a moment and think about the wisdom of the city council letting “a small group of Garland residents and business owners” decide our entire city’s policy on marijuana. Does it make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.
When I cried out to Facebook about the injustice of zero weed stores on the South Hill, Councilman Mike Allen responded: “There is a spot up on Regal that qualified as a potential location. We only had one state liquor on the Hill.”
He’s right about that liquor store thing. But that only points out how the council’s weed policy is actually more restrictive than the old liquor laws. The one store Allen speaks of was at 29th and Grand, next door to what’s now Manito Tap House. Grand and 29th is a CC1, though, so weed is prohibited.
Right now, the only approved location even close to one of our vibrant, or even potentially vibrant, tourist-attracting centers is a location near East Sprague on Ralph Street. But even that is far removed from the International District, closer to Axel’s Pawn Shop than Sonnenberg’s Deli.
Here’s the economic reality: illicit marijuana use is the second-biggest illegal drug market in America, bringing in an estimated $100 billion dollars (in 2010 dollars) every year since 2000. That’s a huge pile of black market money, and guess what? We’re one of only a handful of interesting places in America where weed is now legal. Think of how that money might fit into the mix of an area like Perry, or the section of Sprague we’re so keen to revitalize with all those directed development dollars! People buy some weed, get high “in private” (read: behind the building they bought it in) as the law decrees, and then stick around to sample liberally the neighborhood’s restaurants and whatever else catches their attention.
And think of the tourism! America’s a big, populous place. That’s a captive audience of stoners I’m sure would be eager — stoked, even — to get high and ruminate on just how Near Nature, Near Perfect we are. Quick aside: Visit Spokane, love you guys, but if you aren’t planning a “Weed in Spokane, Washington” tourism campaign, someone needs to lose their job.
But first, we’ve gotta get smarter about what legal pot is and how it can fit into the vibrancy we’re trying to create in this increasingly interesting city. We need to start treating marijuana as a consumable for connoisseurs, not as an obsession for degenerates.
And what a coincidence! We are now — right this minute! — actively incubating, to sometimes stunning effect, connoisseur markets in food, beer and wine, with interesting offshoots like hard cider, liquor at Dry Fly and on-tap Kombucha in Coeur d’Alene. We used to be 10 years behind the times. With on-tap Kombucha, we’ve cut that gap to like 4 years, tops. That deserves a round of applause!
So why, then, do we continue to be so behind-the-times about weed? And why are we relegating a 100-million-dollar connoisseur culture to the hinterlands of our community?
Spokane is the best it’s been in my lifetime, and I’m incredibly excited for the future, but the kombucha-on-tap thing is an apt touchstone: We’re still mostly catching up in the culture game.
We have an opportunity with weed to lead the national conversation, rather than follow it.
Such opportunities are rare, and we should seize it. ♦
Luke Baumgarten, a creative strategist at Seven2 and former culture editor of the Inlander, is a co-founder of Terrain, which organized Bazaar on June 21 in downtown Spokane.