Weekly wrap-up: Issues stir on Main Street and beyond

In late July issues came to a head in Vancouver over the lack of a place for out-of-town folks to smoke the marijuana they purchase at local stores.

Reporter Justin Runquist did a great job of covering the issues that arose out of Mint Tea, a local restaurant, and the owner’s decision to let marijuana smokers use her outdoor smoking tent.

Some folks in the neighborhood are worried about kids being exposed to smoke and THC, which is certainly justifiable. I don’t think anybody in the young legalized industry wants that to happen.

(Smoking friendly tent at Mint Tea)
(Smoking friendly tent at Mint Tea)

But it seems that many of those folks don’t have the same heated concern for outdoor tobacco smoking.

The conflict for Jenna Eckert, who co-owns Mint Tea, is now over whether to continue to allow marijuana smoking in a tent with three covered sides on her property and lose her liquor license, or whether to stop allowing it for now until a there’s a legal way to do both.

An employee told me they’ve decided to stop allowing cannabis smoking on the premises until Eckert can figure out the next steps.

Another issue that arose over the past week is over our coverage of marijuana in the paper. Some folks just don’t want us to write about it at all, and some say we’re writing too much about it.

Fair enough. Everybody has a right to their opinion and to read what they want to. We won’t stop covering it though because it’s news.

It will likely remain news until the shortages stop, more licensees make it through the Liquor Control Board process and the kinks get sorted over public smoking, edibles and a host of other issues I’m sure we haven’t thought of yet.

If Washington and Colorado are both considered test cases for other states looking to legalize, than it’s important that we make note of the issues. It will help others down the line figure out how to do it or if they want to do it at all.

Also of note, in the past three weeks at stores and grow sites we’ve seen about 40 new jobs created, if not more. These are high wage jobs in a brand new industry. Not to mention statewide sales of nearly $2.5 million and tax revenue of more than $600,000 in that time period.

(Reported sales and tax revenue from the Liquor Control Board)
(Reported sales and tax revenue from the Liquor Control Board)

I think this will all eventually become as normal as alcohol. Brewfests don’t seem to create the same outrage that marijuana stores have fostered. But times are changing, and so are attitudes.

Love it or hate it, marijuana is legal in Washington – it’s a wild new world that we’ll all have to adjust to.

-SueVo (sue.vorenberg@columbian.com)

Today we have another great story by Justin about the AG’s involvement in the legal wrangling over small city marijuana bans in Washington. Check it out here: State’s AG to intervene on pot lawsuits

And below is my Thursday story about Main Street’s issues (click the link to read the comments section if you get a chance – some interesting topics in there):

Legalized pot’s growing pains
Several issues have materialized since store opened in Vancouver’s Uptown Village

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter
Published: July 30, 2014, 6:04 PM

Chaos is often the norm at the start of a new industry, and legal marijuana’s launch on Main Street in Vancouver’s Uptown Village is no exception.

Sporadic, temporary store closings, supply shortages, traffic snarls, illegal public smoking and a host of other issues have come to the fore in uptown since the city’s first pot shop, Main Street Marijuana, opened July 9.

In some ways, the situation in that specific area is of a neighborhood coming to terms with what is a vast change in cultural norms that have existed for the past 70 years or more.

In other ways, the issues are statewide, as a system unprepared for massive demand has sputtered along to a clunky start without enough product or licensed growers.

In both cases, it’s part of a process Washington voters signed on for when the state became an early adopter of what’s turning into a national trend toward legalization — which can be evidenced by a New York Times series this week calling for the federal government to legalize the substance and toss it over to state’s rights.

A place to smoke

The newest problem to arise in Vancouver, which is one that’s also arisen in Colorado, is that of public smoking locations.

People who buy marijuana legally, coming into Vancouver as tourists, have no place to consume it because smoking runs counter to pre-existing tobacco smoking bans.

Mint Tea, a restaurant in uptown, is trying to work around that law by letting people smoke marijuana — so long as no one in the outdoor area objects — in its legal tobacco smoking area on the property.

But the thought of public marijuana smoking has some residents concerned about children being exposed to a drug that’s still illegal for anyone younger than 21, and still illegal federally.

“I have two teenage grandchildren that aren’t allowed to walk down Main Street anymore because of the pot smoke,” said Betty, an 80-year-old Vancouver resident who asked that her last name not be used for fear of retribution. “Main Streets are for citizens. They should be safe for everyone to walk on.”

Use of the drug runs counter to the historic and conservative nature of the area, and is making the city less child-friendly, she said.

The smoking tent at Mint Tea has covered sides along the street and is raised above street level.

Jenna Eckert, co-owner of the restaurant, said she’s open to sealing it off more completely or working with neighbors if they have concerns — although so far nobody’s come forward to complain to her specifically about the smoke, she said.

“I’ve had some lash-back from customers saying we’re trying to exploit this, but that’s certainly not what we’re trying to do,” Eckert said. “Overall, our customer base has been supportive. Our goal was to create a safe place for people to go and also to help the dialogue about this unfold.”

If she has to completely seal the tent to comply, though, she’ll try to find a way to make it work, she added.

“It’s important to be respectful,” Eckert said. “If I hear anything, I’m more than willing to work with neighbors. There’s just still a lot of gray area.”

Oddly enough, right across the street from Mint Tea’s elevated smoking area is the street-level outdoor patio and smoking area for Tip Top Tavern, something that’s been there for as long as Emma Craig, 22, can remember.

Craig, who lives down the street from the two watering holes, said she hasn’t noticed any change in the neighborhood since Main Street Marijuana opened. She doesn’t smoke marijuana, but she also doesn’t have any issues with it, she said.

“I grew up passing by Tip Top every day, and you can easily smell that (tobacco smoke) from the street,” Craig said. “I haven’t even noticed it at Mint Tea, but it’s not right on the sidewalk.”

That said, Evan Smith, owner of Canine Utopia, another Main Street uptown business, said he’s seen people smoking in nearby alleyways and public parks. He’s also heard of illegal pot dealers coming into the area when the legal shop is closed.

“Customers have come in and said that people have tried to sell them pot on the street,” Smith said. “It’s completely changed the neighborhood.”

He also owns two homes downtown, and a tenant in one of them has told him she’s leaving because she’s afraid of her two children being exposed to marijuana.

“She’s a single mom and it’s just too close for her,” Smith said. “She feels it’s unsafe now. She gave notice.”

Others, though, say they’ve hardly noticed anything.

“I haven’t seen anybody smoking pot in front of me and I don’t think it’s a big deal,” said John, who lives around the corner from Mint Tea.

John asked that his last name not be used for fear of upsetting others in the community.

“I smoke cigarettes, and I don’t think marijuana smoking is really all that different,” John said. “If marijuana is legal, then they should just let people smoke.”

The issue also hasn’t been overly apparent to many Mint Tea regular customers.

“People can smoke there?” said Annie Warf, a regular at the eatery who was having lunch outside with a friend while holding her 3-week-old son. “I had no idea.”

Warf has never smoked pot, but she’s not bothered by it. She doesn’t want her child exposed to it, but she said if somebody wanted to smoke outside at Mint Tea that she’d “probably just go inside.”

“I don’t have to participate,” Warf said. “But it doesn’t bother me if other people do it. I just don’t want to be around smoke when I’m eating.”

She said she hopes the Legislature clears up some of the gray areas and allows private smoking clubs to set up operations so smokers have a place to go.

“I think that’s a good idea, especially for Portland people,” Warf said. “I think they really need someplace to go that’s inside.”

The business equation

There’s no question that the opening of Main Street Marijuana has drawn new people into the area.

Some stores, including Mint Tea and Arnada Naturals, a health food and nutrition store, have seen a small but welcome uptick in business as a result.

“It’s helped us out a little bit,” said Chris Read, owner of Arnada Naturals. “It has definitely increased traffic on the street and it’s been a desirable mix of folks, with a lot of younger couples and professional types.”

Some of Main Street’s customers have popped by to buy health drinks or to check out some of his vitamins and gluten-free products, Read said.

“I would say off the top of my head we’ve seen a 6 percent or 8 percent uptick in business, and when they’ve had stock on the weekend, it’s really helped, because weekends can be a little slower here,” Read said.

For people looking to use recreational marijuana as medicine, to help them fall asleep or relieve pain, there’s a natural synergy that also draws them to his store, Read said.

“I feel like the use of herbs for their healing and soothing properties, that’s something that’s been going on since the beginning of time,” Read said. “They’re selling one herb over there. I’m selling many.”

Smith, though, said he’s worried that the marijuana economy is hurting the area and small businesses like his pet store.

“We spent so much time cleaning up uptown, rebuilding it into a community, and now I’m watching it change a little every day,” Smith said. “Restaurants will tell you it’s helping but for a business like mine, it’s hurting.”

The lack of parking has become an issue, as pot shop customers have clogged streets when the store is open. And he’s had to install extra security at his shop because of what he says is an increased risk of break-ins that comes with the marijuana clientele.

“Traffic into our store is about the same, but I’ve seen less of our regulars,” Smith said. “We’ve had new people come in, but they don’t buy anything. Our regulars have had a hard time parking and in some cases we’ve had to start delivering to them.”

Eckert has seen an uptick in business at her restaurant and has had an overwhelming amount of vocal support from customers who are glad to have a location to use marijuana.

Her hope, and the hope of many others, is that once edible marijuana, vapor cartridges, tinctures and other less-visible products hit the market, the issues won’t be nearly as problematic. The first edibles are expected to reach stores by late August or early September.

“A lot of people want to see edibles on the market because they don’t want to smoke anyway, because of the health risks from that,” Eckert said. “I think it’s really important to just get all of this out in the open now so we can talk about it.”