As an attorney, and former prosecutor, my journey into the cannabis industry was as unexpected as it is atypical. I started my legal career in 1995 and ended my career as a partner in one of the State’s most established DUI defense firms. As most litigators, my days were spent fighting hard, every day, for people who payed me lots of money to protect their rights and, god willing, keep them out of jail. My clients were by and large good people, who happened to make bad choices. My role was to help them navigate a criminal justice system that was not always fair, and my job was to stand between them and prosecutors and judges who were often times hell bent on making examples of them rather than seeing the good in them.
As rewarding as it was to stand up for the underdog, and to make sure the system worked as it is supposed to, the job was emotionally exhausting. When you love your clients, and when you know that you are the only person standing between them and jail or worse, it is very hard not to take that home with you. The never ending duties as counselor, life coach, and courtroom warrior was taking its toll. I would come home from work every night beat down and disengaged from my wife and kids. Like many lawyers my life seemed to belong more to my clients and caseload than it did to me and my family, and things were not going to improve.
In 2013 an attorney colleague of mine pulled me aside in front of the Seattle Municipal courthouse and told me about a new piece of legislation that recently passed call Initiative 502, or I502. Under I502 Washington state was implementing the legalization of retail marijuana, and I learned that I could put my name into a lottery for the chance to be drawn for one of 334 retail stores. I knew very little about cannabis at the time, but knew that I needed to change the course of my life, and applied for three stores (two in my home town of Issaquah and one in Renton). I had no idea of whether or not my name would be drawn, but was grateful for the opportunity to do something else.
On May 1 2014, at the end of one of the most difficult days in my career, I slumped at my desk and opened my email. I had three emails for the Liquor Control Board (now the Liquor and Cannabis Board). The first two emails I opened told me that I had not been drawn for an Issaquah location. I opened the last email. It said, “Congratulations, you have been drawn number one for the first of three Renton locations.” I didn’t know it at the time but this email gave me my life back.
I immediately phoned my wife and told her the news. It is not every day that a spouse hears her husband say that he is going to stop being a lawyer so he can open a pot shop. The fact that my wife met this news with the same joy and enthusiasm that I was feeling tells you all you need to know about my wife Charlene, and perhaps just as much about how desperately unhappy I had become.
A friend and neighbor who had likewise applied for a retail license emailed me to share that he had been drawn for the City of Auburn, and my journey began with a trip to Colorado. Neither of us knew anything about running a pot shop and we decided that if we were going to open stores, either together or separately, we should learn as much as we could about the industry by seeing what it looked like in the first state to legalize the recreational sale of cannabis.
The trip to Colorado proved to be transformative. We visited as many shops as we could in three days, soaking the good and the bad up like a sponge. What we learned was that there were not many stores approaching the sale of cannabis from a traditional retail experience. Many of the shops were small and dark, the customer service was lacking, and it was almost like the shops were apologizing for what they were rather than celebrating the industry. We came away from the trip with the goal of creating a retail space that our families could be proud of. We decided that we would work together to open two stores that embraced the industry and that would give people a wonderful customer service experience as well as beautiful stores to shop for the best cannabis products that Washington had to offer.
Against the advice of many of my lawyer friends I stopped taking cases so I could better focus on a new career, and I cashed in my retirement. Like Cortez, I pulled my ship onto the shore and set it ablaze. There would be no going back.
We spent the next two months consulting with a branding agency, drilling down on who we were and what we wanted to be. This turned out to be the most important work we would do, and we emerged with the three core values of Educate, Celebrate, and Elevate. Every decision we would make going forward would need to resonate with these values and they remain the central part of our corporate identity.
Next we hired Brooke McGurdy, and architect and president of the firm KBKM, who had worked with Howard Schultz in the creation of nearly 200 Starbucks stores. We shared our vision with Brooke, and she helped us create a physical space that reflected our ethics of Educate (with a knowledge bar), Celebrate (with an immersive experiential shopping experience) and Elevate (with architecture that is evocative of a high end winery).
We had no idea whether or not this vision would resonate with our customer base, but knew that it was the kind of store we would want to visit. As it turns out, providing a space for customers who had been marginalized for their love of cannabis not only resonated with our customer base, but was embraced and appreciated more than we could have ever expected. To this day we frequently have folks come in and thank us for creating a space that normalizes the shopping experience in a way that allows them to engage their passion in an environment that truly supports the industry.
One of the genuine blessings of my career change is that I am now surrounded by people who really love what they do, and are passionate about it. The cannabis industry is full of people who genuinely care about each other, and a shared love of what once needed to be hidden has resulted in a culture that is galvanized to look after one another. Nowhere is this more evident than in the circle of growers that we now work with. Each has had a lifelong love affair with cannabis, and this is evident in how they talk about growing, how they describe the genetics of certain strains they have been cultivating for a much as 20 years, and how proud they are of the fruits of their labor.
As an avid wine drinker, what I learned as I immersed myself in the world of cannabis is that there are many similarities between the two industries: both involve growing and farming by people who are passionate about how they produce and grow, both involve using a natural substance to alter your mind in a way that is engaging and pleasant, and both include a vast variety of different plant types that produce wholly different experiences from both taste and, to a lesser degree, effects.
In my opinion it is this similarity with the wine industry that will act as a bridge between the old culture of cannabis and the emergence of new users who will want to branch out now that cannabis is legal. The emergence of new products like drink mixers, high end chocolates, teas, and even cannabis sugar has allowed people who don’t like to smoke to experience products that they are more comfortable with. By far our bestselling product is still traditional flower (or “bud”), but the market for alternative means of consumption is ever growing and very exciting.
Additionally, the language of cannabis, and the ability to deep dive into different strains, different cannabinoids, and the understanding of terpenes (the organic compounds that provide different aromas to cannabis as well as other pants and fruits) has parallels with wine. Just as wine has its own vocabulary surrounding flavors, tannins, mouthfeel and aroma that defines a particular wine varietal – so too does cannabis (perhaps to an even higher degree). The emergence of “cannoisseurs” and “weed snobs” is a real thing.
As the industry grows more and more people are experiencing the fun and satisfaction of educating themselves of how their cannabis is grown, exploring the provenance of the strains they enjoy, identifying the unique terroir of where their favorite strains are grown, and generally being able to “geek out” on something that they love. Now that cannabis is legal, growers are much more comfortable coming into our shop, setting up at our knowledge bar, and sharing their growing ethic, methods, and strain lineage with a growing base of customers thirsty for this knowledge.
The body of information out there, and the diversity of cannabis strains is truly mind boggling. There are growers who specialize in “sun grown” cannabis who passionately champion the concept of natural sunlight and the uniqueness of the soil composition where they grow. There is even a movement to establish cannabis growing regions as “APA’s” much like wine (think Napa Valley, or Red Mountain). Then there are growers who extol the virtues of indoor growing, where every aspect of the growing process (temperature, humidity, light, oxygen, etc.) can be controlled by computers. These growers will remind you that Washington put high end, indoor cannabis on the map as the source of the best cannabis in the world. Even within this group there are subgroups of growers who specialize in deep water hydroponics (where no soil is used), growers who exclusively use soil, growers who use coco, growers who use traditional metal halide lights, and growers who use only the emergent technology of LCD lights. Each is a passionate advocate of their own growing methodology, and most are eager to share what they have learned.
The array of cannabis concentrates is just as staggering. There are those specializing in the traditional, artisan, craft of creating solventless hash just as it has been done for centuries in Afghanistan. Then there are those producers who are on the cutting edge of extraction methods utilizing CO2 and equipment that looks like it belongs in a mad scientist’s laboratory. As more and more high tech equipment companies are emboldened to enter the field of cannabis (they have been reticent to engage due to the legalities up to this point), I am more than excited to see where the field of extraction goes. I believe that it will evolve quickly, and I have already seen huge changes in the industry taking place at breakneck speed.
The long and short of this is that this industry offers something for everyone. From the highly educated weed snob, to the wide eyed newbie, the emergent world of retail cannabis is a playground full of good souls eager to share a passion that was previously shrouded behind a curtain of illegality. I am so grateful to be part of this industry and only hope I can continue to honor the past and those who have worked so hard to make legal cannabis a reality. I will continue to be a vocal proponent of our industry, and hopefully bring a perspective that elevates the conversation of cannabis from the world of Cheech and Chong, to a world where cannabis can be accepted as a normal and healthy part of adult life.
There is no reason why cannabis should be treated any differently than wine or spirits. I am proud to do my small part in changing hearts and minds by creating a space where people can come to educate themselves, celebrate this wonderful industry, and elevate their lives and experiences. The opportunity to do this has truly been a blessing. Not having to put on a suit every day to do battle in a courtroom is the icing on the cake. Life in flip flops is a good thing.
Written By : Eric Gaston, Founder
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