High Stakes

Washington’s First (Legal) Weed Salesman

The state’s liquor control board is issuing the first wave of licenses to an unconfirmed number of recreational marijuana dispensaries Monday. Will this 44-year-old fisherman win out?

Mathew Staver/Washington Post via Getty

“Who would get mad at Willie Nelson?”

After winning one of the few lottery spots to get early approval for a marijuana dispensary, the first step in a year-long process, 40-something entrepreneurs John Evich and Tom Beckley were determined to land a lovable A-lister to win over haters of the legalization. When Nelson turned down their offer to be the first to purchase legal marijuana in Washington state, the two men went for Seth Rogen, who grew up 51 miles from their soon-to-open store. Rogen, or his agent, declined. “What we really wanted was a steel cage with Seth Rogen and Kim Jung-un inside!” Evich jokes. “Can you imagine a pot store opening like that?”

Fortunately, we may not have to.

Following a long and arduous process, the first recreational marijuana shops are set to open Tuesday in Washington, almost two years after residents of the state voted to legalize the possession of marijuana under Initiative 502. On Monday, the Washington State Liquor Control Board, tasked with adapting its state’s alcohol regulation model for cannabis, will issue the first wave of store licenses.

But experts estimate that no more than 20 of the 334 permits the state is holding will be issued. Those that are may go to stores that have yet to complete final inspection or are facing pressure from the community to relocate before opening. Assuming the predictions are correct, the small number of dispensary owners who are ready for business will be in a mad dash for an enviable (and lucrative) prize Tuesday: the distinction of being Washington state’s first recreational marijuana store.

Evich, a 44-year-old entrepreneur, commercial crab fisherman, mechanical objects creator (see the mechanical How I Met Your Dragon), and Deadliest Catch groupie, is gunning for victory. “I feel like a chicken with 20 heads cut off,” he says with an enthusiasm both admirable and terrifying. Along with Beckley, Evich is hoping that Top Shelf Cannabis—a full-service marijuana dispensary in Bellingham, Washington—will be the first to make it “official.”

It’s Sunday night, just a few hours before he and his team suspect they’ll be getting an email (between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. Pacific Time) from the Liquor Control Board with their license. As the paper prints out, potentially showing their certification as one of the first legal recreational marijuana stores in Washington state, Evich plans to snap a photo and put it on Facebook instantly (“the time stamp will prove it.”). Once the license has been issued, Top Shelf’s incoming product will be placed on quarantine for 24 hours while it passes final inspection. Evich’s two cannabis orders—one 10 pounds of 2-gram bags and the other 8 pounds of 1-gram bags—are both coming from growers in Seattle.

When the 24 hours are up (which, if all goes to plan, should be sometime around 2 a.m. Tuesday), the dispensary owners will need to pick up all of the bud from their producers, transport it to their stores in a locked steel box, and enter each piece of merchandise individually into the state’s database system before opening at 8 a.m. It’s unclear whether other stores are hiding in the rafters with secret armies ready to catalog, organize, and open at 8 a.m. sharp, too. But Evich isn’t worried. “Cannabis City is the only other one I see, and it’s in Seattle, not opening until noon,” he says.

Acquiring the first license and making the first sale Tuesday morning is crucial on several levels, he says. “I hope we all get licenses, it’s important. But yeah, I want to get up there first and say, ‘We did it. 502 happened. It’s here.’” Evich says he hopes the first image of someone buying legal marijuana, whether Willie Nelson or otherwise, is a favorable one. “We want the first legal sale of marijuana in Washington to be at $10/gram, lower than the black market. We want to give I-502 a positive presence,” he says. After that, Top Shelf will sell at prices closer to $12-$25/gram.

Evich says he also hopes Top Shelf will change the way people in Washington view cannabis moving forward. The name, chosen by Beckley, intentionally leaves out any reference to green, weed, or pot. In order to cater to a professional, corporate, clean group, the two even crafted a logo without using the cannabis leaf—or at least they tried to. “At first it was a logo of some bud in a nug jug glass jar, but then someone told us it looked like a turd in a glass jar,” Evich says, laughing. “I said, ‘It’s not a piece of shit, it’s THE shit.’” In the interest of clarity, the two ended up changing the contents of the jar to the chemical components of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis.

Sitting on a lawn chair outside the Bellingham shop with his feet propped up on his pickup, Evich is daydreaming about the Tuesday opening—and the hours before it. He and others have estimated that Washington won’t have hundreds of people in lines, as there were in Colorado, in part because stores there opened January 1, a holiday. Regardless, he knows there will be people in Washington celebrating on Tuesday. “Some have talked about camping out,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.”