Lease falls through for Battle Ground pot retailer

Businessman needs new location to use his luck in lottery

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

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Local business owner Loren Carlson is ready to take a pioneering step into Washington's fledgling marijuana industry by opening one of the first pot shops in Clark County.

There's just one small problem he'll have to solve first: finding a retail location. When the state Liquor Control Board released its ranking of recreational marijuana retail applicants on May 2, Carlson found his C4U shop in the top slot for Battle Ground. That was great news for the Vancouver man, 52, as the state has allotted only one retail license for Battle Ground so far.

With moratoriums in other small cities throughout the area, he could even be the first in Clark County to start legally selling recreational marijuana if no one in Vancouver beats him to that milestone. But Carlson's luck with the lottery was dampened by his would-be landlord's decision to back out of a property lease for a marijuana store.

To be eligible for the retail license lottery, applicants were required to provide proof of rights to a real property for the pot shops they hoped to open. Initially, Carlson had met that requirement because Josh Oliva, the leasing manager of Battle Ground Market Center, gave him permission to rent a suite at the strip mall.

Then Oliva changed his mind after the application process had begun. Among the many potential roadblocks to getting a license to sell recreational marijuana, Carlson's situation is a special case, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Liquor Control Board.

"This is the only case I've heard where that's happened," Smith said. "We'd work with him to relocate or whatever he needs to do."

Relocation?

Applicants who, like Carlson, lose their real property rights for reasons beyond their control get a second chance to find locations for their pot shops, Smith said. But of course, working out a deal for just the right spot that fits all the state's requirements isn't easy. A pot store needs to be at least 1,000 feet away from playgrounds, parks, transit centers, libraries, schools, arcades, recreation centers and child care centers. And the store has to be within Battle Ground's city limits.

The state hasn't set a deadline for Carlson to arrange a new retail space. Carlson is optimistic about landing a new location, but he realizes many landlords are apprehensive about leasing to marijuana retailers as the drug remains illegal at the federal level. With that in mind, he's trying to be as careful as he can about the kind of store he'll run and where it will operate.

"There is a stigma about it, and I kind of think we only get one chance to do this right," he said. "We want to work with Battle Ground. We just want to make sure it's a reputable-type business out there."

Overcoming stigma

Carlson never expected voters to legalize recreational marijuana in Washington, and even when it happened nearly two years ago, he had no intention of owning a pot shop. To him, it was just a long-illicit drug, and he wanted nothing to do with its distribution.

That changed in the past year, when Carlson began considering the business potential for recreational marijuana and the drug's possible medicinal benefits.

"The more I researched it, the more I started thinking, 'Man, this stuff's kind of silly,'?" he said of federal drug laws, which rank marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs. "It's kind of crazy that it's a Schedule I drug still when meth is a Schedule II drug. Shame on us for not having it legal already."

With ongoing disputes about the legal status of dispensaries and bans on collective gardens in some Washington cities, medical marijuana patients will be able to get the drug from a new source when pot shops open this summer. Carlson said he'll be happy to provide that service.

"They can say anything they want about recreational (marijuana), that it's for people that want to go out and get stoned and stuff like that," he said. "But if it leads to the possibility of some cures for some different stuff, then it only seems to make sense to me."

Carlson declined to go into detail about revenue expectations and plans for financing the store.

Initially, he was hesitant to get into the industry, and he still has some fears about negative impact the new store could have on his other business, which he stresses will be completely separate from the pot shop. Out of concern for his reputation, he asked not to be photographed for this story and to leave his other business unnamed.

Despite the stigma, Carlson continues to warm up to the idea of selling pot, and he's excited to be on the forefront of a new industry.

"The ability to go in and have the opportunity to do something that's history-making and have it done right I guess is the big challenge and the big thing that kind of excites me," he said.

Vision for business

Without a location nailed down, it's hard to picture how Carlson's store would look, but he already has a rough vision in mind.

"It seems like everybody has this impression that it's going to be a head shop or a pipe shop," he said. "That's not what our intention is. Our intention is to be upscale."

Carlson said he's focused on creating a tidy, reputable and transparent store. He describes an "almost organic" atmosphere.

He hasn't shared specifics about the kinds of products he'll sell, but he plans to get his marijuana from CannaMan Farms, the only licensed grower in Clark County at this point. Initially, Carlson was uncomfortable with selling glass pipes until he took a trip to Colorado and learned that they are a standard fixture for pot retailers.

To maximize his chances in the lottery, Carlson applied for retail licenses in Camas and Vancouver, as well. He fell low on the Vancouver list but was the runner-up for Camas, a city with a temporary ban on growing, processing and selling recreational marijuana.

The state allotted just one pot shop for Camas, but if the city lifts its moratorium and the top applicant fails to meet any of the state's requirements, Carlson could find himself in a position for a second store. So far, Carlson has no plans to open a second C4U pot shop, but he's open to the idea if can manage to get a second license.