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STEVE ELLIOTT

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Steve Elliott examines buds of the Blu-K strain (Blueberry x AK-47) through a magnifying loupe at the Tacoma Cannabis Farmers Market in 2011 [Don Skakie]
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Steve Elliott examines buds of the Blu-K strain (Blueberry x AK-47) through a magnifying loupe at the Tacoma Cannabis Farmers Market in 2011
[Don Skakie]

When the Seattle Weekly asked in early 2011 if I was interested in reviewing medical marijuana dispensaries — making me the second such reviewer in the nation, after only Denver Westword‘s William Breathes, I realized from the beginning that it was a plum gig. I didn’t even negotiate salary very hard, but I did make sure I’d be getting paid enough to have some fun browsing a new shop every week.

This wonderful invitation didn’t come out of nowhere; I had run the Toke of the Town cannabis blog for Village Voice Media since its inception in 2009, and the Seattle Weekly is owned by the same parent company. So when VVM needed a Seattle-area pot writer, they already had one in-house — a classic case of right place, right time.

Now, the medical marijuana world of the Seattle area, in early 2011, was a bit chaotic, and contrary to any rose-tinged revisionism, could be cutthroat.

“Seattle’s lively medical-marijuana scene can be quite entertaining,” I wrote in my very first “Toke Signals” column, the cover story of the Weekly. “There was the time last year when one of the biggest dispensaries in town went on the offensive against a few of its rivals, going so far as to allegedly hack and commandeer their websites and post private answering-machine messages online. Not exactly a shining moment.”

OK, You’re Authorized. Now What?

After I’d first become a legal medical marijuana patient in Washington in 2008, I had no clear idea what to do next. My black-market dealer of the past four years was only occasionally reliable, but the few collectives in town at that time seemed quite reluctant to take on new patients. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get in Seattle Green Cross OR Emerald Cross in 2008. (I was finally accepted by Green Buddha collective the following year).

These collectives weren’t yet technically “storefronts;” they were more informal than that, and generally run either out of someone’s home or from temporary office space without signage or advertising.

This collective paranoia was due partially to internecine factionalism, with divisions that became more apparent once I found out that “this” collective wouldn’t accept “that” doctor’s authorizations. It certainly seemed an unnecessarily cliquish way to treat patients whose health issues already gave them plenty about which to worry.

I quickly discovered that much of the problem was that Washington state’s medical-marijuana community operated in a particularly weird legal gray area. The nebulous nature of cannabis distribution in Washington in 2008 could be traced to the voter-approved 1998 initiative that legalized medicinal marijuana, but provided no clear, legal way for patients to get it. (Patients were allowed to grow a few plants, with the number depending upon whom you talked to for awhile, then 15 plants, presumably with seeds or clones from their Fairy Godmother.)

Medical marijuana dispensaries were neither explicitly allowed nor prohibited in Washington, which meant that whether a particular shop was open for business or shut down with prejudice often depended upon the whims of local law enforcement, which are harder to read than tea leaves.

So despite having been nominally legit for more than a decade, it wasn’t until 2009 — when Obama famously announced that his administration would no longer actively seek to prosecute patients and providers following state laws — that much of the local medical marijuana community, at least the non-conspiracy theorists, finally felt safe to come into the light. Storefront dispensaries became a reality in Washington state.

By 2011, when I wrote my first dispensary review column for the Weekly, state tax officials estimated that at least 120 dispensaries were operating in the open, with dozens or perhaps even hundreds more still keeping low profiles. Patients enjoyed a much wider selection than they had just three years before, and the old paradigm of haughty exclusivity was out the window; pot shops weren’t just open for business, they were actively courting patients.

Clinical or Communal?

My second column ever — and first dispensary review, since the initial column on February 8 was just an introduction to the concept — appeared on February 15, 2011, and in it, I noted, “There are two kinds of medical marijuana patients: those who want to get as close to the clinical experience as possible when getting their cannabis, and those who prefer a funkier, more communal vibe.”

I can’t even describe my excitement upon seeing this new kind of community inventing itself. The medical marijuana tribe, like the farmers’ markets and new dispensaries themselves, was thrumming with energy and excitement, with plenty of community and a healthy dash of entrepreneurship and innovation.

That review, of the Tacoma Cannabis Farmers Market, noted that “If you’re one of the doctor’s-office types — or if you don’t enjoy being around hippies or pot smoke — then, trust me, the Tacoma Cannabis Farmers Market is not for you.” But, on the other hand, “Don’t like the price (or the strains, the spiel, or the ‘tude) this guy’s giving you? Walk to the next table. It’s positively exhilarating.”

Blue Dream, $20 a gram from Conscious Care Cooperative in 2011] [Steve Elliott ~alapoet~]
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Blue Dream, $20 a gram from Conscious Care Cooperative in 2011
[Steve Elliott ~alapoet~]

The following week’s review, in my third column, looked at the other side of that divide: Conscious Care Cooperative in Lake Forest Park definitely fell on the clinical side of things. “Part of what makes CCC seem so committed to offering a clinical experience is that it inadvertently replicates that unfortunate standard of medical offices: the long wait before being seen,” I wrote.

Although CCC ostensibly offered a buy-one-get-one-free gram-of-equal-value to first-time patients, evidently I wasn’t vigilant enough in pressuring them to follow through, because even though I was told upon entering the shop that I qualified for the deal, a quick look at my receipt once I got home confirmed that I was charged for both of the grams I’d just bought — at $20 apiece. (Many thanks, by the way, to Viki and Bobby for driving me to all the dispensaries for the first two years of the column’s existence.)

That’s right, folks: Just as did recreational marijuana begin with sky-high prices in Washington state in 2014, medicinal cannabis had done the same, at least at some shops, in late 2010 and early 2011. But at least my Chem Dawg and Blue Dream, the two $20 strains, were both quite potent.

“While $20 grams wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in California, they’re on the expensive side for Seattle, where prices usually hover around the $10/gram mark, with occasional $12 and $15 gourmet strains,” I wrote in 2011. “Bottom line, if you’re charging $20 a gram in Seattle, the cannabis had better be good. Neither Chem Dawg nor Blue Dream disappointed.”

Quoted In DEA Search Warrant

The Drug Enforcement Administration referenced a Seattle Weekly medical marijuana dispensary review in a search warrant against two Seattle-area dispensaries. [Association of Alternative Newsmedia]
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The Drug Enforcement Administration referenced a Seattle Weekly medical marijuana dispensary review in a search warrant against two Seattle-area dispensaries.
[Association of Alternative Newsmedia]

One of the stranger experiences I had as a dispensary reviewer came that same year, in November 2011, when the federal Drug Enforcement Administration referenced one of my reviews in a search warrant against two Seattle-area dispensaries.

Page 47 of the March 22, 2011 issue of SW contains an ad for Seattle Cannabis Co-op that touts their selection of strains and website. Opposite that is [Steve] Elliott’s “Toke Signals,” column. Perhaps because our critic’s palate is so refined, the feds opted to quote from his piece, which is headlined, “Bringing Buds to Ballard.

Elliott says it was a “startling experience” to see his words quoted in the search warrant. “Does the DEA really need my personal impressions of Pineapple Express, Dankest Kahn, and Hawaiian Snow to execute a dispensary search? Remember, taxpayer, it’s your money that finances this foolishness.”

Jeremy Kaufman, left, and Ben Regan at the CPC in 2011 [Steve Elliott ~alapoet~]
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Jeremy Kaufman, left, and Ben Regan at the CPC in 2011
[Steve Elliott ~alapoet~]


A Gem in Georgetown
One of the best shops I visited during that first year of reviews was the C.P.C. (Center for Palliative Care) in south Seattle neighborhood Georgetown in April.
Co-owner Jeremy Kaufman, after breaking his neck while snowboarding, had become unpleasantly aware of the plethora of horrific side effects, mental and physical, of harsh pharmaceutical painkillers.
Jeremy found that medical marijuana eased his pain without zombie-ing him out like opioids, and he wasn’t shy about sharing his enthusiasm for, and knowledge about, the herb on the day I visited. Co-owner Ben Regan proved equally generous with his time and knowledge.

The CPC got a return visit in September 2013, by which time dynamic and knowledgable head budtender Lydia Ensley had come aboard. She was a definite asset to the shop.

One of the best moves Jeremy and Ben have made is bringing aboard star budtender Lydia Ensley. Lydia may be short in stature (she describes herself as “a 4´9˝ fireball”), but she stands tall when it comes to cannabis knowledge, proving herself an able guide through the flowers, concentrates, tinctures, topicals, and medibles — most of them produced in-house — which the CPC carries.

Storefront Dispensaries Come To Bremerton

Years after storefront medical-marijuana dispensaries became a fact of life in most of the counties surrounding Puget Sound, Kitsap County, Washington patients had to either take a road trip or resort to delivery services—that is, until 2013. That’s when storefront dispensaries started opening in Gorst, just outside the Bremerton city limits; by July, they were in Bremerton itself.

Bremerton’s second shop, the Emerald Coast Collective (at that time located across from Fred Meyer) got reviewed in July 2013. To their credit, Emerald Coast didn’t capitalize on the novelty of storefront marijuana in Bremerton by jacking up their prices (unlike, say, Shelton shops, with their $15 grams, even in 2013); they had an across-the-board $10-per-gram rate for flowers, $240 an ounce. The selection was quite good; on the day I visited, there were close to 25 strains, color-coded for indicas, sativas, and hybrids.

Debating a Budtender in Silverdale

It’s odd how you sometimes meet some of your best friends in this business. The first time I ever saw budtender Logan, at the Silverdale medical dispensary Greenthumb (which is now the recreational 502 store Fillabong), we got into a debate about the genetic origins of a couple of strains, which I chronicled thusly:

Sniffing the Head Cheese strain, a sativa, I innocently remarked that I thought I could detect some Diesel (another iconic strain) in its bouquet. “I think that would be the other way around,” Logan muttered.

“I’m sorry, what would be the other way around?” I asked.

“The genetics,” Logan said. “Cheese came before Diesel.”

Whoa, I thought. Maybe this is some sort of “tough love” tactic. Unconventional sales method, perhaps? But even as I was grappling with that, I was pretty darn sure Diesel came first, so I countered, “Wait a minute; East Coast Sour Diesel’s been around for more than 20 years.”

“OK,” Logan said, giving me a look telegraphing that it wasn’t. “But the Dutch have been breeding strains a lot longer than we have, and the Dutch bred Cheese.” I decided not to invest any more energy in the debate, but when I got home I asked two experts—Amsterdam cannabis activist Peter Lunk and Canadian author Matt Mernagh, author of Marijuana Smoker’s Guidebook: The Easy Way to Identify and Enjoy Marijuana Strains (2013, Green Candy Press)—which came first, and they both agree: Diesel. To celebrate, I burned a doob of the Cheese.

Happy endings-wise, Logan and I became good friends after the initial encounter; in fact, he became a valued strain advisor on each of my visits to Greenthumb.

Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair [Kitsap Cannabis / YouTube]
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A vendor at the now-gone Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair
[Kitsap Cannabis / YouTube]

This Is How You Do It: The Power of Marijuana Farmers’ Markets

“I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating,” I wrote in October 2013. “Medical-marijuana farmers markets are the purest form of patient empowerment short of growing your own.”

Strain: Ripper Haze Access Point: Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair (Gorst, WA) Donation: $10/gram
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Ripper Haze found at Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair (Gorst, WA)
Donation: $10/gram

It’s a paradigm-changer. With booths lined up side by side, patients are in the driver’s seat. If one farmer/vendor doesn’t have the strains or the prices you’re looking for, keep walking— there’s another booth right there. And you can try the medicine, on the spot, at many booths—lots of them keep a pipe on hand just for that purpose.

Not only does this exert downward pressure on prices through good old free-market competition, but it also puts upward pressure on quality, because if your strains or medibles don’t measure up to your neighbors’, guess where folks are going to spend their money?

Ray Alloway, back in his Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair days. Now Ray owns A Recreational Marijuana Store (that's the name of it) in Port Orchard. [Weedfinder]
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Ray Alloway, back in his Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair days. Now Ray owns A Recreational Marijuana Store (that’s the name of it) in Port Orchard.
[Weedfinder (link removed due to being flagged by Google – weedfinder . com]

The default price for top-shelf cannabis flowers at the Kitsap Cannabis Farmers Fair (operated, interestingly, by the son of the former head of the WestNET Narcotics Enforcement Team) was $10 a gram, but a little shopping around would yield some bargains; I saw grams for as low as $7. Top-shelf ounces averaged around $200, but there were $150 ounces available as well, and I saw some bargain-basement ounces for as low as $75.

“If you want to see what I’m talking about when I say medical-marijuana community, check out this market,” I wrote.

Clouds on the Horizon After I-502 Passage

By November 2013, a year after Washington voters approved Initiative 502, which “sort of” legalized recreational marijuana in the state but eventually, with the help of SB 5052, spelled doom for the medical marijuana community as it had existed for years, ominous clouds were gathering on the horizon.

A complete ban on home growing by medical-marijuana patients was one of the proposed new rules unveiled by the Washington State Liquor Control Board on October 21. Along with a ban on collective gardens — which ended up effectively taking out medical-marijuana dispensaries — the growing ban would have given patients no other option than the recreational pot stores established under I-502.

The promise, of course, was that I-502 “wouldn’t negatively impact” patients by compromising their safe access to cannabis. The reality, as is becoming more and more apparent, is that patients and the collectives that supply them are seen as impediments to recreational-marijuana profits, and the fat tax proceeds expected to follow. Simply put, the LCB is attempting to “fold in” the medical-marijuana market, primarily over concern that untaxed dispensaries would prove too much competition for state-licensed recreational-pot stores.

So why did it suddenly become so crucial to force patients — many of them on fixed incomes, and economically marginal — to stop growing their own medicine, when that’s the only way so many of them can afford any cannabis at all? You guessed it—because the Liquor Control Board wants even patients to have to go to their licensed recreational-marijuana stores (and pay those high taxes, you betcha!), because growing their own would be “bad for profits.”

The LCB, under heavy patient pressure, ended up reversing itself on home grows by December, recommending to lawmakers that medical marijuana patients continue to be allowed to grow their own medicine in their homes.

The Board’s previous recommendation — that home growing be outlawed in order to force patients through the recreational channels established by I-502 — had produced outrage in the medical-cannabis community. Since recreational pot users aren’t allowed to grow their own under 502, the rationale was to also ban patients from growing.

The Board did, however, reduce patient plant counts from 15 to 6 (if one agrees to be listed on a state registry) or just 4 (if you don’t want to be registered with the state as a medical marijuana patient).

In Which I Meet Frankenstein

When I visited Port Orchard’s Green Comfort collective in January 2014, I didn’t know that I would encounter a strain which would influence my growing efforts from that point forward. The indica strain Frankenstein, the only $12 a gram strain in the shop (everything else was $10), was irresistible to me.

I won’t say I’m jaded about flowers, as plenty of dabbers do. I actually prefer flowers over hash oil for smoking, due to their superior terpene profile. Many of the aromatic terpenes and flavinoids are too fragile, too subtle, to survive the extraction process. Solvents like butane and alcohol take away most of the subtle tastes and smells along with the vegetable matter; in the process of concentrating the cannabinoids, some of the healing properties of the raw flowers are lost.

And these Frankenstein flowers were some of the best I’ve smoked in a while. What’s so special about Frankenstein? Well, most decent strains work medically for me, to a greater or lesser extent, in controlling my pain and nausea; I usually don’t get high on them, though. When any strain breaks through the elevated tolerance I’ve developed due to my daily use of full-extract cannabis oil (for which alcohol was used as the solvent), I know it’s something special, and I got quite high indeed on Frankenstein.

After finding a couple seeds in the dispensary eighth of Frankenstein, I popped one and got a female; I ended up crossing it with DJ Short Blueberry to make the strain FrankenBerry, which has become a mainstay of my growing, and one of my go-to medicinal indica dominants.

Juan shows off one of his Kushes at the 3C booth at Galaxy, on Rainier Avenue in Seattle
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Juan shows off one of his Kushes at the 3C booth at Galaxy, on Rainier Avenue in Seattle, 2014
[Steve Elliott ~alapoet~]

The Biggest Marijuana Farmer’s Market I Ever Saw

In March 2014, with gathering forces seemingly intent on the destruction of medical marijuana in Washington (yes, they ultimately succeeded), I visited NW Cannabis Market, with two locations, one in White Center and the big one, the Galaxy location, on Rainier Avenue. It was a wonderful experience I will never forget.

Let me just say it: Until farmers’ markets are once again allowed in the medical marijuana community — and hopefully, in the recreational sphere as well — we haven’t achieved true cannabis freedom. There is no substitute for talking directly with the farmer who grew your medicine, and there is no feedback more knowledgeable when it comes to which strains are appropriate for which conditions. Remember, in order to participate in these markets, once had to, oneself, be a medical marijuana patient.

The Galaxy location of NW Cannabis Market really took it to the next level. It was a wonderland, with friendly vendors competing for your attention, a welcoming atmosphere, and the enticing smells of cannabis flowers, marijuana smoke, and lots of dabs being taken at the dab bar, where you could relax and enjoy a cold water, soda or juice, while choosing from a tasty menu of hash oils from an attentive dab-tender.

The End of Medical Marijuana In Washington?

SB 5052 decreed that all medical marijuana dispensaries without I-502 recreational marijuana licenses would have to close down by July 1, 2016, and almost all of them complied.

There are still a couple of holdout farmers’ markets, with most observers expecting eventual police action and then an ensuing court battle, which could be viewed as the last stand of purely medical access in Washington state.

The loss of hundreds of safe access points statewide means that many medicinal cannabis patients — including many parents who are trying to care for their children with seizure disorders, cancer, and other serious illnesses — now have all local access cut off and have to drive long distances. Once they finally get there, have to pay much higher prices, and those are the lucky ones. Many have completely lost legal access to the medical marijuana products they need.

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