Past, present and future of cannabis in Federal Way | Opinion

Mirror editor sparks conversation about cannabis.

Some of my fondest memories and most character-building experiences while working in Federal Way over the years have involved marijuana.

Once upon a time in the late 2000s, during the push for legalization in Washington, I wondered about the validity of medical marijuana and whether that was just a loophole so that people could smoke weed without legal repercussions.

I sent an email to an address I found on a vague website for medical marijuana, and the person who responded was from Federal Way. Let’s call him Bill. We chatted a few times, and Bill drove me to a couple of clandestine “pot shops,” as some folks like to call them. One of these under-the-radar dispensaries was in a nondescript storage unit, while another was in a small run-of-the-mill office complex.

I wanted to meet someone from Federal Way who grew their own cannabis for legitimate medical purposes. Bill said he had such a friend, but his friend feared that talking with me would lead to getting busted. The man with the homegrow finally agreed to let me see it on the condition that he remain anonymous … and that I arrive blindfolded.

This initially made me nervous, but I took a leap of faith. After all, you don’t hear about many small-town journalists being kidnapped for ransom. Bill picked me up at the Mirror office, and after we entered a neighborhood near Thomas Jefferson High School, he handed me a motorcycle helmet with a bandana inside that covered the face shield.

With my eyesight temporarily gone inside this stuffy dark helmet, I felt the car turning corners until we stopped inside a garage. I removed the helmet and followed Bill into the living room. There sat a frail thirty-something man in leg braces who used cannabis to help manage problems related to multiple sclerosis. Then, as if straight out of a movie, Bill and his friend slid open an entire wall in the living room to reveal a sizable collection of cannabis plants with big buds bathing under bright grow lights, their green serrated leaves fluttering amid the hum of rotating fans, blasting everyone’s noses with that skunky smell.

During these adventures, I met other people who used cannabis for medical purposes, such as a cancer patient who said the drug gave him the munchies — and as a result, the ability to tolerate the legal prescriptions that otherwise killed his appetite.

After my stories were published, people started coming out of the woodwork. One was a medical student at the University of Washington whose research on cannabis has since made him a renowned expert on the subject. But the most memorable reader was a woman in her mid-70s. In public, she earned accolades for volunteering at a Federal Way senior facility. In private, she sold weed to local seniors. Her story checked out, and I remember her pager chiming as we chatted in my office.

I look back on that experience in writing about medical cannabis and realize how much it helped me become a better journalist. I had to earn the trust of everyday people who feared retribution for ingesting a plant in order to relieve their pain. Many of these people gave away the cannabis and related products to others in need. And I had to be honest, in my reporting, when encountering some shady folks who used marijuana’s medical aspects as more of a front for making a few tax-free bucks.

Fast forward more than a decade later, and legalized cannabis has become an established part of the state’s tax base. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board reports nearly $515 million in cannabis tax revenue for its most recent fiscal year. That money is distributed to local governments, higher education, Washington State Health Care Authority, the state Department of Health and even the Washington State Patrol, to name a few recipients.

Cannabis, both recreational and medicinal, still has a ways to go in shedding its stigmas. In Federal Way, voters have twice rejected cannabis retailers (and any related tax revenue) in city limits. More than half the voters said no to cannabis retailers. The other half just drives to Fife or Auburn to buy cannabis, for example — and while they’re at it, they just might shop at all those surrounding businesses.

Allow me to present a “what if” scenario for when a recreational cannabis store is finally allowed to open in Federal Way. As some of you know, one of the more outspoken opponents of local cannabis retailers has been Jack Walsh, a member of the Federal Way City Council as well as owner of Sub Zero Ice Cream. Let’s imagine that a cannabis retailer called Higher Power finally opens in Federal Way next to Sub Zero Ice Cream in the same Pacific Highway strip mall that houses Best Buy. I imagine at first, our esteemed Councilman Walsh would not be happy about the idea of the devil’s lettuce being sold next door to his heavenly flash-frozen concoctions. But then a funny thing happens. The popularity of Higher Power exponentially increases foot traffic into Sub Zero, allowing the business to hire more staff in order to meet demand. Sub Zero regularly has a line out the door consisting of red-eyed stoners from all walks of life who never would have found this Federal Way ice cream shop otherwise. As business continues to boom for Higher Power and Sub Zero, the two shops team up on a couple of promotions — discounts on ice cream for dispensary customers, for example, or even special cannabis-infused flavors. Let’s imagine down the road that the “pot shop” and “ice cream shop” could somehow merge to create the ultimate cannabis experience called Sub Zero Ice Cream and Cannabis. Or perhaps the two join to become a Federal Way charity juggernaut that raises thousands of dollars for the local homeless population.

Anyway, back to reality. I suppose this is a long-winded way of expressing amazement at the overall shift in the legal status of cannabis compared to the late 2000s, when legalization was at its tipping point. It won’t be long, I think, until Federal Way revisits this issue again.

Federal Way Mirror editor Andy Hobbs: