Marijuana business owners David and Shilo Morgan set up shop in downtown Spokane last month at the old Commercial Building as city crews worked on sidewalks and removed a chain-link fence that blocked entrance to their store.
Such a welcome is a far cry from what the Morgans had experienced in Pasco, where their store, Lucky Leaf Co., was shuttered by a queasy City Council last year.
“It was completely just night and day from Pasco,” David Morgan said Friday from his shop at 1111 W. First Ave. “Pasco was just, behind the scenes, trying to block us from becoming licensed.”
But the store’s presence in downtown Spokane, near churches and treatment centers for those addicted to drugs and the mentally ill, is poised to reignite the discussion about where marijuana should be sold in Spokane. City and church leaders have been meeting with elected officials in an attempt to revise zoning laws to prohibit pot shops downtown, or at least near houses of worship like the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church on Lincoln Street.
“At least we need to have some regulations that protect children,” said Alexander Kaprian, pastor of the church. “We have teenagers here. Youth and young families. We have to protect them.”
Don Olson owns the building next to the church, which Kaprian began more than 25 years ago as a refugee from Ukraine. Olson inherited the building from his father, and it’s been on the market for four years, he said. A buyer interested in locating a retail marijuana store there is the first legitimate offer Olson has received in that time, he said.
“I’m surprised how regulated it is,” Olson said of the marijuana industry. After he was approached about selling his building, Olson visited another marijuana retailer, which he said looked “like a high-end jewelry store.”
The store near Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church is still seeking final approval from state and local agencies, Olson said.
Kaprian, Olson and others held a neighborhood meeting last week, attended by Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan, to discuss their concerns about a pot shop on the corner of Monroe Street and Second Avenue. On the west side of the intersection sits a CHAS clinic that offers medical services and counseling for the mentally ill. To the north is Transitions women’s shelter.
Opponents of downtown marijuana stores say the shops will attract crime and serve as a temptation to those seeking treatment at downtown drug clinics. Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said his organization is concerned stores in the heart of the city will add to the existing problem of people smoking marijuana illegally on the streets.
“Our job is to try to create a safe, inviting and vibrant downtown,” Richard said. “These stores are being sited within a stone’s throw of places with really conflicting uses.”
Spokane’s city code permits marijuana businesses to operate in downtown areas, as long as they’re 1,000 feet away from certain locations where children and young adults under 21 congregate. That includes schools, child care centers, libraries and public transportation centers, which rules out shops near the Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown bus plaza. But the setbacks aren’t in place for churches, a revision Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner Michael McGuire wants to see changed.
“We’re looking at four or five years from now,” said McGuire, who joined a small group of concerned citizens that included former state Rep. John Ahern to protest the Lucky Leaf shop shortly after it opened. “What will the downtown area be like with all these marijuana shops?”
McGuire called the influx of legal marijuana into the downtown core “an epidemic.”
Kaprian said even though houses of worship are not written into the law, he believes his church should require a setback because it houses a basement hangout for young people and city code requires a setback from “recreational center(s) or facilities.” Workers on Friday installed a new glass door for the basement’s kitchen, where young church members were practicing brewing coffee drinks.
David Morgan said the first person he reached out to in Spokane was the leader of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Morgans are practicing Catholics, and their children attend Catholic school in Pasco.
“I saw the church over there. I didn’t think they would really notice us much,” Morgan said. Two parking garages owned by Cowles Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review, stand between the Lucky Leaf on the south and Our Lady of Lourdes along Riverside Avenue.
David Morgan said the process of moving his business has been stressful on his family. The couple’s children continue to attend school in Pasco, and he commutes several times a week from the Tri-Cities. He’s disappointed there are still people upset he moved into the neighborhood.
“I should have dug into it a little deeper, I guess,” Morgan said. “I didn’t think we were going to get that over here.”
Fagan said discussions to amend local or state laws to prohibit marijuana sales downtown were in “really early” stages. The councilman signed a petition circulated by Kaprian that asks for stricter rules regarding the sale of marijuana downtown. Fagan said the City Council should consider drafting an ordinance that would outlaw the sale of marijuana within areas already identified as alcohol impact areas, or parts of town that prohibit the sale of beverages with high levels of alcohol by volume. That includes downtown.
Fagan said he would not support rules to oust businesses, such as Lucky Leaf, that have been approved through the existing regulatory process.
“I wouldn’t entertain the thought of shuttering that business,” Fagan said, adding the rules would likely grandfather in existing stores. But he said he would appeal to the store to consider moving from an area so near a house of worship.
Blaine Stum, who serves on a small committee at City Hall that reviews applications for marijuana businesses, said the opposition to Lucky Leaf was the first time the city had received “real pushback” since licensing began. The city originally wrote its marijuana ordinances to match state regulations and promote the new industry, Stum said.
“We made it pretty explicit that we didn’t want to make it so difficult for businesses to open up here,” he said.
The focus for Lucky Leaf is to continue to grow its customer base and to be good neighbors in an area of Spokane seeking revitalization, Morgan said.
“If we could contribute or help with that, that would make me feel great,” he said. “That’s what we were hoping to do. If we draw people down here, that would give other people an opportunity to open other types of businesses.”