Strictly Business: Legal pot industry sure to be robust

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

It's rare when any business in Clark County attracts national or even regional interest, so the media throng that greeted last Wednesday's opening of Main Street Marijuana was quite a curiosity.

The clever "weed and weenies" event that accompanied the store's opening, along with the presence of Mayor Tim Leavitt at the ribbon-cutting, captured the attention of media outlets that devour eye-catching visuals. But business likely would still have been brisk at Main Street Marijuana even if it hadn't snagged the free publicity. With a state-imposed limit of just 15 retail outlets for all of Clark County, and with some of those blocked by local government moratoriums, the store is well-positioned to serve the new market of legal marijuana users.

Some customers will be coming over from Oregon, where marijuana sales for non-medical uses remains illegal. Never mind that Oregon residents are breaking the law if they bring the weed back home. We've learned to tolerate these small illegalities in bistate commerce. Washington residents routinely shop in Oregon without paying this state's sales tax, and plenty of Oregon residents trek this way to purchase fireworks that they will shoot off illegally at home.

Oregonians will vote this November on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Even if the measure passes, it will take years to implement. That opens a window of opportunity for those shrewd enough to run a successful business and lucky enough to have won a retail license in the state lottery.

There's more to this new industry than retail stores and marijuana suppliers. Some entrepreneurs are looking for opportunities to tap into demand for related products.

Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, said his organization has heard from at least a half-dozen people who want to become suppliers of edible marijuana products, specialty soils and paper products. He knows of one manufacturer of glass products used in the marijuana trade who is considering expansion. One local company is developing software for the industry.

But the drug remains illegal under federal law, and the CREDC receives federal funding for some of its work. It's limited in what help it can offer and it's cautious about providing much assistance to the industry, Bomar says. The industry could generate a noteworthy number of jobs once the federal-state legal conflicts are untangled, but CREDC isn't looking at the marijuana trade as a target for a local industry cluster.

Former state legislator Joe Tanner, who is working with others to establish marijuana outlets in La Center and Ridgefield, sees overreach by supporters and opponents about the impact of marijuana legalization. He's heard overwrought fears of truckers and bright lights outside retail stores and grandiose claims about new job creation. The in-between reality, Tanner believes, is that the marijuana industry will be largely discreet and unnoticed, with retail outlets a quiet presence similar the liquor stores of old. As the debate over legalization subsides, he figures, marijuana could easily be legal in every state in a decade.

For now, Washington's newest industry has not yet sorted out winners and losers. While the marketplace performs its harsh magic, our curiosity is certain to stick with us.