LONGVIEW — When Freedom Market decided to expand its recreational marijuana business to Cathlamet two years ago, only two of three county commissioners approved its application.
And again, when the shop went to renew its license this spring, it passed without County Commissioner Dan Cothren’s approval.
Despite that dissent, the shop’s popularity has grown, and the owners report steadily increasing sales. Store co-owner Todd Bratton said a lot of the customers are Cathlamet-area residents, and that number seems to be growing alongside rising sales.
“(August) was our biggest month to date,” said Bratton. “We are hoping to continue that trend through the winter. And it’s still a lot of locals coming in.”
That might be surprising for some residents in Wahkiakum County, where the 2012 initiative to legalize recreational marijuana garnered only 48 percent “yes” votes. (The measure passed the state with 55.7 percent approval.)
Though industry officials acknowledge that there’s still some pushback against cannabis, they say the business has made great strides in “normalizing” marijuana in the last five years. A recent Gallup poll shows that 66 percent of U.S. citizens support legalizing the drug — an all-time high, and a 10-point boost over the rate when Washington legalized the substance seven years ago.
Industry officials credit the change of heart to time, which has helped dispel some of the misconceptions that roused opposition to legal cannabis.
“I think what you are seeing is sort of a natural progression, now that we are five years in. People have started to see that the industry as a whole are committed to a safe marketplace that is fully regulated and keeps products out of the hands of the kids,” said Vicki Christophersen, executive director for the Washington CannaBusiness Association.
As more stores open across the state, harmful stereotypes of “stumbling and illiterate” Cheech and Chong-type characters flocking to town are proved wrong, Christophersen said.
“What we’ve seen is that you walk into a retail store, and the clientele that are shopping there are as representative of the community as the folks walking down the street. … You see people of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and professions.”
She added that the “fear we are going to have Cheech and Chong running around the state … has not come to fruition. We actually see folks like soccer moms and dads participating in the industry.”
Fears that legal marijuana would make the product more accessible for children was another large driver for opposition to the 2012 measure, Christophersen said. But in the last five years, the industry has shown it’s effectively keeping cannabis products out of the hands of kids, she said.
According to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board’s annual report, the board recorded 78 violations for selling marijuana to minors in 2018. That’s compared to 550 violations recorded for selling liquor to minors.
And the rate of marijuana use among high schoolers has remained relatively flat over the last eight years, Christophersen said. She pointed to the Healthy Youth Survey, a statewide, biannual survey that measures students’ self-reported alcohol and marijuana use.
The 2010 survey found that about 26 percent of high school seniors and 20 percent of high school sophomores said they had used marijuana in the last month. In 2018, about 26 percent of seniors and 18 percent of sophomores said the same thing.
In Cowlitz County, the so-called “current use of marijuana” rate rose from 24 percent of seniors in 2010 to 31 percent in 2018. However, the sophomore rate dropped from 22 percent to 16 percent.
Cannabis certainly hasn’t earned complete public acceptance statewide, or even Cowlitz County.
According to the Municipal Research and Services Center, 81 of 281 Washington cities (28 percent) still ban marijuana business altogether. Other cities allow some marijuana-related business but prohibit others.
For example, Woodland has banned retail sale of cannabis but allows businesses that produce and process the product.
“To be fair, there are still a lot of communities in the state that have not changed their minds,” Christophersen said.