Walla Walla Cannabis Company

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Tywen Kelly

Amber Cole behind the front counter of the dispensary.

Hannah Bartman, Feature Editor

Amber Cole, owner of the new Walla Walla Cannabis Company, in front of the new dispensary. Photo by Tywen Kelly.

At the very end of Main Street, where one would expect to see tumbleweeds rolling lazily across the street, there is soon to emerge a new kind of weed – a kind of weed that has garnered national attention and pushed Washington on the map of progressive social ideals. The Walla Walla Cannabis Company plans to open its doors the second week of September, and will be the first of two retail marijuana stores to open in Walla Walla.

“Everybody has been very curious; everybody has been here to make sure that everything is being done right. The Walla Walla general public for the most part has taken a ‘wait and see’ [attitude]. They’re not opposed or supportive; they just want to see,” said owner of the Walla Walla Cannabis Company, Amber Cole.

Retail marijuana was legalized in Washington in November of 2012 and took effect over the course of one year. The general distribution of retail marijuana stores throughout Washington was regulated by a lottery in which each area of the state was allowed a certain number of stores dependent on population size. Walla Walla was allowed two stores, the second of which, the Walla Walla Weedery, should also see its doors open within the next month.

Walla Walla’s particular wine and foodie atmospheres are aspects that attract tourists to the town. This culture, Cole believes, is something that will be further supported by the cannabis industry.

“I don’t see any conflict [between wine and marijuana]; I think it will pair nicely,” said Cole. “I think a lot of the same people that are interested in varieties of grapes and wine will be interested in the different varieties of cannabis.”

National acceptance of marijuana is trending towards legalization. Washington and Colorado were the first to legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012 and Washington D.C., Oregon and Alaska legalized in 2014. In December 2014, Congress passed a federal spending measure ending the federal government’s medical (not retail) marijuana ban, thereby leaving medical legalization up to each state, and currently 22 states have legalized medical marijuana.

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who co-spearheaded the spending measure, said that the measure is “the first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana.”

These political changes that lift the longstanding illegality of marijuana are an inevitable precursor to developments of social change. Marijuana use still follows a social stigma that can only begin to be overcome with increased distribution and discussion.

“When it’s accepted as a medicine and people feel comfortable seeing how that’s transpiring then they realize that cannabis wasn’t this big scary thing that we thought it was,” said Cole. “I want to introduce pot to everybody in a way that feels okay. We’re coming off of a prohibition so of course it’s going to take a minute to get it and that’s where I think education comes into it.” 

Amber Cole behind the front counter of the dispensary.
Amber Cole behind the front counter of the dispensary. Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Colorado, which had issued 833 recreational licenses as of December 2014, has garnered a reputation as a sort of haven for recreational marijuana users. Senior Danika Rothwell, who is from Durango, Colo. describes the number of retail shops in her small mountain town dramatically increasing over the past two years, to the extent that marijuana shops now outnumber churches.

“In terms of people actually smoking pot, I don’t think it has changed a lot, at least not in my experience. The thing with dispensaries is [that they are] expensive. In the immediacy I guess although it’s more accessible, but people still have their dealers,” she said.

This change has also been correlated with some other negative social effects. Rothwell notes that she has seen and heard of instances in which people have passed out and had to go to the hospital from consuming excessively potent edibles. Additionally, she has noticed over the past two years the homeless population has increased, and in a small town with limited social resources, this is an issue.

“Durango is a liberal space and not only is it liberal but it’s a place where people smoke a lot of pot … it’s not a shocking component of the lifestyle,” she said. “Here, it would be weird for me to imagine it all of the sudden becoming something that is socially acceptable.”

Cole had never thought about coming to Walla Walla, let alone opening a retail marijuana shop, until her friend approached her and asked if she wanted to co-own a medical marijuana dispensary. This was prior to retail legalization, so Cole was unsure of the restrictions and legality of the business. She hired an attorney, made sure she had someone to take care of her dogs in case of an emergency, and took a foothold in the emerging business.

It was at this time that Cole and her business partner began their medical marijuana organization called Leaf of Hope. The dispensary provided children with severe forms of epilepsy with a strand of cannabis high in cannabidiols (CBDs) called AC/DC. Currently supporting 30 families throughout Washington State, the AC/DC strain has produced very effective results, reducing seizures up to 80 percent in some children. It is because of this experience that Cole hopes to also obtain a medical license for her retail shop, so that she can provide for those children in need on the eastern side of the state.

Before the addition of a medical license though, Cole wants to focus on education and safe use for her customers. She foresees the national trend toward legalization, and she hopes that her small business and support of local producers does not get lost among the national hype of marijuana retail.

“I think down the road, because the nation is headed towards legalization, it’s possible that [I] as a business owner might be trying to strategize how I compete with someone like Walmart. There are so many people waiting on the sidelines for it to become federally legal, and hopefully it won’t be done in a bastardized way; hopefully we can keep the quality up and support local businesses,” she said.

Despite these state-wide changes, Whitman’s marijuana policy remains consistent with the federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act and Title IX. With these policies in mind, marijuana use on campus regardless of age is prohibited and will result in consequences as the college sees fit.

The effect of the retail shop on Whitman’s campus is similarly ambiguous to its effects on Walla Walla as a whole; factors of marijuana’s normalization, accessibility and general education will affect its usage, but that remains to be seen within the upcoming months.

“I don’t think the amount of usage will increase with the opening of a store. I think people who already smoke will continue to smoke and people who don’t might try it once but it will not change things that much,” said senior Kristin Nesbit.