Leaders of Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral downtown say they won’t back down in its fight over the Lucky Leaf marijuana shop, meeting with Spokane city leaders and state lawmakers during a forum Thursday.
The church says since the Lucky Leaf pot shop opened a few blocks away, criminal activity in the area has increased and many parishioners feel the store should never have been allowed to open so close to their campus in the first place.
Recently one of the pastors found marijuana packaging in one of the church stairwells. They feel this shows people were smoking marijuana out in the open on the church campus, however church leaders say the issue of substance use and abuse is much bigger than that one wrapper.
“It just seems to me that it’s common sense not to add another drug to an area that is already suffering with substance abuse,” said Father Darrin Connall with Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral.
The church leaders say this all could’ve been prevented if the city and state laws were different. During the meeting Spokane city leaders and state lawmakers took turns pointing fingers at each other over that point.
State Senator Michael Baumgartner said the city can create ordinances to include churches in marijuana shop zoning regulations. Spokane city council member Lori Kinnear said the city shouldn’t have to do that, but rather the legislature should be fixing loopholes so marijuana regulation doesn’t fall on local governments.
Right now the law states that marijuana retailers must be more than 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, childcare centers and recreation facilities. Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral has several youth programs which is why they feel churches should be included in that zoning law.
Another takeaway from the meeting was that this is an alcohol impact area, which means the city can restrict what kind of alcohol is sold here. Baumgartner said he is working on legislation that would let cities and counties ban marijuana stores in alcohol impact areas.
Lucky Leaf owners have spoken at length on this issue in the past, saying they feel caught in the middle and while they understand the church’s concerns, the shop owners say they have followed all the laws that are in place.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner headed a meeting of local and state legislators Thursday discussing the potential to ban sales of marijuana where strong alcoholic drinks are already outlawed. But it’s unlikely that would occur in Spokane, where the majority of the City Council has no desire to limit sales.
KHQ’s Andrea Olson explains the dispute over distance between a downtown church and marijuana store.
People against the downtown marijuana retailer Lucky Leaf had their chance to talk about it before the Washington Senate Commerce and Labor Committee as it considers new policies regulating the marijuana industry.
The nation’s largest automobile club says six states that allow marijuana use have legal tests for driving while impaired by the drug that have no scientific basis, and it’s calling for scrapping those laws.
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.”
An unlikely business hopes to bring life back to a rundown street on the west side of downtown Spokane. Lucky Leaf opened their doors on Monday in the Commercial Building on First Avenue.
“It seemed to me like it had a lot of potential. It seemed to me like it was an overlooked part of town,” Owner David Morgan said.
David and Shilo Morgan could have opened their recreational marijuana shop in Seattle, they could have kept it in their hometown of Pasco. Instead, they chose a spot that has been unoccupied in eight years.
“We built it out ourselves,” David Morgan said. “It was pretty challenging and pretty fun.”
With the help of friends, they gutted the inside and painted the exterior. Sample photos from the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture provided guidance on colors to keep the building’s historic touch.
“Long process, long project,” Shilo Morgan said. “My husband has been up here since the beginning of February.”
The couple said they have had some concerns from churches in the area, however other neighbors in the area are happy to see the spot filled.
“I think new business means new life, anything is great, “ Connie Naccarato said.
Naccarato owns Scratch and the Rain Lounge next door. She has been in the Montvale Building for eight years. There have been tough times, but she is starting to see growth.
“I think this area in itself is very diverse,” Naccarato said. “With us and the Fox here, our clientele might be a little different then what the marijuana shop might bring in.”
The Montvale Building just went under new ownership. She explains that there are plans in the work to fill spaces soon. The Morgan’s hope to see the same happen in the Commercial Building, starting with their pipe dream.
“There’s a bunch of possibilities,” Morgan said.
Searching for contaminants on marijuana is a lot like spying a certain red-and-white clad everyman in a children’s book, lab owner Gordon Fagras said.
“You’ve got to find Waldo, hidden in all that stuff,” he said, plying a test tube full of marijuana edibles at Trace Analytics in downtown Spokane earlier this month.
Turns out, there were lots of Waldos hidden in samples tested from across the state. Fagras’ lab, on the request of a doctor who actively fought the legalization of marijuana in Washington state and an organization calling for pesticide-free pot, tested dozens of flower and concentrate samples straight from store shelves.
State regulators and the marijuana industry are preparing for a significant change in state rules later this year when medical marijuana will fall under the same regulations as recreational marijuana for the first time. The change is prompting some to push the state to more strictly enforce rules on pesticides.
In results first published by Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper the Stranger, Trace Analytics found multiple products containing pesticide levels in the tens of thousands parts per billion range.
While several extracts tested positive for pesticides, others – including Spokane County businesses The Happy Crowd, Sweetwater Farms and Kush Comfort Farms – showed no detectable signs of contaminants in the tests.
The Washington Department of Health publishes a list of pesticides approved for use on marijuana. Using any other chemical is outlawed, but there’s no systematic test in place to discover violations.
Unlike produce and tobacco, there are few studies on the harmful effects of smoking marijuana containing large amounts of pesticides. And the way the state’s marijuana laws are written, enforcement is driven by complaints and randomized testing from the Liquor and Cannabis Board, which have produced relatively few violations for pesticide-related offenses compared to other issues.
“The state’s making a valiant effort to get it right, but if you’re looking at it inside the system, there’s holes everywhere,” Fagras said.
“There’s some product on the shelf that shouldn’t be there,” he said.
But Kevin Oliver, a Spokane County grower who also represents the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the results only confirm that there are some bad players in the market, and that the industry is continuing its march out of the shadows.
“It’s nice to know, in a regulated environment, what we’re smoking,” Oliver said. “We’ve never known before.”
Fagras said he’s seeking to plug the holes before the state requires it. Others suggest the system should be set up to allow the Liquor and Cannabis Board to do its job enforcing pesticide laws that should become stricter as state licensers begin examining medical products.
‘The honor system isn’t working’
The specificity of Fagras’ testing, which also determines a product’s potency and includes mapping the genetics of different marijuana strains, attracted the attention of medical marijuana patient advocates who are seeking so-called “clean cannabis,” or products devoid of all pesticides and chemicals used in extraction processes.
Tracy Sirrine, owner and operator of the group Patients for Patients, said the state needs to do more to inform consumers about the chemicals present in state-licensed marijuana, particularly for medical patients.
“You don’t want to add any harsh chemicals to their diet,” Sirrine said. “They’re already avoiding sugar. They’re already avoiding everything.”
While the state does not require testing for specific pesticide levels before a product can be sold, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board does perform site visits and requires growers to record the chemicals they’re using on plants and to include that information on packaging. But Sirrine said the state is giving up too much responsibility.
“The honor system isn’t working,” Sirrine said.
Mikhail Carpenter, a Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman, said pesticide enforcement for marijuana is comparable to all other crops.
“There’s not somebody checking every single time you grow, for a particular agricultural product,” he said.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board’s enforcement data show just eight of the roughly 640 rule violations recorded during the first two years of legal marijuana sales in Washington involved the use of illegal pesticides.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any high-profile violations.
The Stranger also reported earlier this year that two major producers were ordered to stop all sales after illegal substances were discovered in their products – in one case, with the assistance of Fagras’ Trace Analytics.
State investigators use the Washington Department of Agriculture’s list of hundreds of chemicals that are safe to use on marijuana, based on standards for other types of crops, to guide enforcement.
Though Sirrine said she lobbied the state Legislature to require stricter tests and guidelines for pesticides ahead of the July 1 rollout of medical strains of marijuana sold in state-licensed dispensaries, no new laws on testing were passed during this year’s legislative session.
The Department of Health is holding public meetings, including one scheduled Tuesday at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park in Spokane, to take input on rules for pesticides and other contaminants in marijuana intended for medical use.
Who pays for the tests?
Fagras employs geneticists from the recently shuttered Signature Genomics Laboratories in Spokane and conducts testing considered among the most rigorous in the state. It isn’t cheap.
“This a $2.5 million facility. This isn’t garage science,” Fagras said.
The lobby of Fagras’ testing lab looks more like a business office. Trade magazines and snacks have been laid out on granite countertops, and a 1984 performance by jazz fusion band Weather Report plays on a big-screen TV. Behind safety windows and under the surveillance of security cameras, however, sit machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that Fagras and his team are using to test bits of cannabis flower, oils and edibles.
Fagras estimated the cost of testing a gram of marijuana, often submitted to laboratories in 5-pound lots, would be about 35 cents. That price could be palatable to producers and processors if they viewed safety testing the same way as other farmers, he said.
“An agricultural person will go to his apple crop and spend $400 or $500 to test for pesticides in the blink of an eye,” Fagras said. “That’s the cost of doing business.”
But Crystal Oliver, who owns Spokane County producer and processor Washington’s Finest Cannabis with her husband, Kevin, said the financial ripples of paying more for testing could cripple the nascent market, especially if the rigorous testing of medical marijuana strains is extended to recreational pot.
“You could definitely see some problems,” Crystal Oliver said. “We’re going to try to tell our retailers that our product is going to cost a dollar more per gram. The customer base would probably say, ‘No,’ too.”
The Olivers point to a Department of Health report prepared in February that predicts the potential economic effect of pesticide and heavy metal testing on small marijuana businesses. Forecasters predict producers and processors can expect 4 percent of their total sales to be eaten up by the testing.
“No other agricultural product on the market goes through this kind of scrutiny,” Crystal Oliver said.
But patient advocate Sirrine said she believes the market could support more expensive marijuana that’s been subjected to rigorous testing. And the state could kick in to pay some of the costs of testing, easing the burden on businesses, she said.
“I think the state should subsidize some of the cost for this testing, absolutely,” Sirrine said.
Kevin Oliver agreed.
“It doesn’t mean that consumer safety needs to be purchased on the backs of producers and processors,” he said. He suggested businesses pay a one-time fee to the state that would go toward randomized testing throughout the year, rather than mandated testing on all marijuana packaged for sale.
Oliver and Sirrine’s proposals would require a change to administrative codes, which mandate businesses pay the costs of testing. There are several agencies already vying to receive some of the excise tax revenue from marijuana, which totaled more than $64 million statewide in 2015.
The Olivers aren’t worried about the testing, they say, because they don’t use banned substances on their crops. Kevin Oliver said the current level of testing is still better than before the state became involved in licensing pot.
“Even recreational marijuana has a list of pesticides that are approved,” he said. “That’s more oversight than medical ever had in the past.”
How strong of a test?
Fagras keeps a box of edible marijuana products that have been broken down for genetic-level testing in one of the back rooms of the Trace Analytics lab. He pulled out a test tube filled with mushy kernels of microwave popcorn laced with cannabis, then another “after” tube that shows the snack in powdery form, ready for the oil to be extracted, so that potency and pesticide testing can begin.
Eventually, the oil goes through a process involving helium that spins off ions of psychoactive materials, providing the level of potency as well as evidence of any contaminants, including pesticides.
The testing process, while lengthy and costly, will add value to the product, Fagras said, and he hopes ultimately put more money back into the producers’ and processors’ pockets because of the higher price that can be charged in stores for “clean” cannabis that has undergone rigorous testing.
Sam Calvert, who owns the retailer Green Star Cannabis in Spokane, only sells small-batch, indoor-grown marijuana on his shelves. He said he’d welcome tougher testing, because he’s seen products of subpar quality coming through his door.
“In my opinion, most of the testing scenarios we’re forced to utilize are flawed,” he said.
The market will determine the level of testing that’s desired, Calvert said, and he believes state-licensed marijuana can withstand an increase in cost. He said he understood why the state was moving deliberately on increasing testing rigors.
“In an emerging market, they want to be careful, because if they’re too aggressive, they can increase the cost too much and shut it down,” Calvert said. “If they aren’t aggressive enough, people could get sick.”
Carpenter, with the Liquor and Cannabis Board, said his organization also supports increased testing, now that pesticide screening is beginning to become a reality.
“The industry continues to evolve,” he said.
Washington has not seen the far-reaching recalls of marijuana that have taken place in Colorado, following the filing of a class-action lawsuit over pesticide-heavy marijuana that eventually was dismissed.
Fagras said the state system in Washington is not set up for recalls. He’s taking work with cannabis companies to recoup his million-dollar investment, and also sees a larger role for labs in the state. Based on the rules made by lawmakers and stakeholders, they’ll serve as guardians for the market. That also puts pressure on labs to act ethically, he said.
“If we’re going to be gatekeepers, we’ve got to be good gatekeepers,” he said.