SEATTLE – Dot-bong, Marijuana Inc., the Green Rush: Call it what you will, the burgeoning legal marijuana industry in Washington state is drawing pot prospectors of all stripes.
Microsoft veterans and farmers, real estate agents and pastry chefs, former journalists and longtime pot growers alike are seeking new challenges – and fortunes – in the production, processing and sale of a drug that’s been illegal for generations.
In Colorado, the only other state to legalize marijuana, existing medical marijuana dispensaries can begin selling for recreational use in January. But in Washington, where sales are expected to begin in late spring, the industry is open to nearly anyone – provided they’ve lived in the state for three months, pass a background check and raise any money from within the state. Washington on Monday begins accepting applications from those eager to jump in.
Click through the portraits, or read through the profiles, of those hoping to make their mark in the new world of legal weed.
THE PIG FARMER
Bruce King says he was a 22-year-old high-school dropout when Microsoft hired him as its 80th employee in 1986. A software engineer, he eventually left and started or acquired two other companies – telephone adult chat and psychic hotlines – but he really wanted to farm.
He found a management team to handle his business and started breeding pigs north of Seattle. After Washington legalized marijuana last fall, he looked at pot as any other crop. The potential margins were “fabulously attractive,” he says. He found a farm with a 25,000-square-foot barn for a marijuana operation.
King, 50, doesn’t like pot himself, but says, “If people are going to eat a stupid drug, they should eat my stupid drug.” He likens it to running a psychic hotline when he’s never had a reading. “You don’t have to like Brussels sprouts to grow them.”
POT & PATISSERIES
Marla Molly Poiset had swapped her three-decade-old home-furnishing store and interior design business in Colorado for a life of world travel when she learned some devastating news: Her eldest daughter had leukemia.
She suspended her travels to help her daughter and her family through the ordeal. She then continued her tour, attending cooking school in Paris. Poiset, 59, graduated last spring, and had an idea: “Blending my newfound patisserie skills with medical cannabis,” she says.
So she abandoned Paris for Seattle, where she’s been developing recipes for marijuana-infused chocolate truffles for recreational and medical use. Her aim is to create “a beautiful package” like French chocolate or pastries for people like her daughter.
They could “ingest discreetly and enjoy life, rather than everything being in a pill,” she says.
If legal pot is the Green Rush, Daniel Curylo has some unique credentials: He’s been an actual prospector.
He helped put himself through college working for a company that flew him into northern British Columbia and the Yukon with a map, a compass and a heavy backpack. He’d pan for gold and take soil samples. Another source of income in those days? Growing and selling marijuana with a few other political science majors.
A former techie and ex-house flipper, Curylo, 41, says his background in “business development and taking risks” is perfect for the legal pot world.
He has invested $400,000 so far. His goal? A cannabis business park northwest of Olympia that would feature his growing operation, Cascade Crops, as well as retail stores run by his mother, father and aunt.
‘THE POSTER CHILD FOR ANTI-CANNABIS’
Angel Swanson was raised on the South Side of Chicago by a mother who warned: “If you see drugs, run.”
Decades later, the businesswoman and real estate agent found herself in Washington state with a husband, seven children and a strong bias against illegal drugs – “the poster child for anti-cannabis,” she says.
That is, until one of her daughters, who had serious digestive issues and had never weighed more than 100 pounds, came home from college one day and ate a full plate of food. The girl had tried pot-laced cookies, which stimulated her appetite. Swanson lost it.
“Do you have any idea the sacrifices that have been made for you to go to college?” she remembers saying.
Swanson, 52, did some research and couldn’t find a reason for her daughter not to use weed. She and her husband opened a medical marijuana dispensary, The Cannabis Emporium, near Tacoma. They now want to sell recreational pot, but hope to continue to serve patients – a challenge, since stores will be barred from trumpeting pot’s therapeutic benefits.
FROM MBA TO THC
Todd Spaits and Bilye (sounds like “Billy”) Miller are more gym-and-yoga than smoke-and-cough. The couple doesn’t use pot – “I much prefer a glass of scotch,” Spaits says – but they say they know a good business opportunity when they see one.
The pair previously worked in online marketing in San Diego, and Spaits has a master’s in business administration. Their most recent startup is skyfu.com, which helps restaurants monitor what people are saying about them on social media.
Spaits, 39, also helps judge business plan competitions and believes his skills are perfectly honed to run a successful pot store.
He and Miller, 38, who has also worked as a bartender, are excited about Washington’s grand experiment. They sought advice from friends who operate medical dispensaries in California to help draw up a revenue model. They’re seeking a retail license in Kirkland, east of Seattle.
THE PATH FROM ADDICTION
It started with small doses that eased the aches of restaurant work. But over time, Yevgeniy “Eugene” Frid found himself addicted to prescription painkillers. “It completely envelops your whole life.”
He tried to quit many times, and when he finally did, he says, cannabis played a huge role – displacing the opiates with a substance much gentler on the body.
Frid, 28, quit his job doing business management and marketing for a video game company when a friend asked him to help start a medical marijuana dispensary. A Greener Today opened in Seattle in 2012 and now serves about 4,000 people.
Frid says his most gratifying work is helping patients get off opiates the way he did, so he has mixed feelings about applying for a recreational retail license. The future of unregulated medical marijuana in Washington is dim – many state officials see it as a threat to the heavily taxed recreational system. Some medical dispensary operators believe they have little choice but to convert to the recreational market.
“We don’t know what’s happening,” Frid says.
THE SECURITY GUARD
For a guy with a uniform and a gun, Steve Smith was unusually welcome at medical marijuana dispensaries. Of course, he was a security guard, not a federal drug agent.
Smith, 29, had a background in food marketing. His father worked for a large grocery cooperative in California. He earned a degree in agriculture business management and started marketing organic and natural products for a food broker. He liked thinking he was helping people eat better.
A friend who was working in security suggested Smith do the same. Looking to keep busy and make some extra money, he took his training and became a certified security guard. The company that hired him happened to assign him to a couple of medical marijuana dispensaries.
“You can only work as a guard for so long before you want to open your own shop,” he says. He wants to apply to open two retail marijuana shops near Tacoma.
THE SECRET SODA
Cecilia Sivertson worked for eight years as a paralegal in the prosecutor’s office for Washington’s most populous county. She helped make sure people paid child support and tracked down deadbeat dads. It was a rewarding, stressful and sometimes depressing job.
After her husband died in a car accident in 2001, she decided she needed a more upbeat line of work and joined a labeling business.
Sivertson, 55, has epilepsy and arthritis in her hands. About two years ago, she says, she noticed improvement in both when she started using marijuana. Last spring, she began making products infused with cannabis oil under her “Nana’s Secret” line. Her specialty is pot-infused soda – with the soda concentrate produced by a client of the labeling business.
The Alabama native says she’s applying to become a licensed marijuana processor so her sodas and other items can be sold in retail pot stores.
CANNABIS: A FORCE FOR GOOD
Paul Schrag has a simple philosophy: He hopes to use his skills to do the most good in the world.
For a while, that meant working in journalism, enticed by its power to shape public discourse. Before being laid off in 2009, he worked as a reporter for the Business Examiner, a biweekly publication in Tacoma.
Nowadays, it means working in the pot industry.
The 40-year-old says he’s been growing marijuana since 1999 and uses it to treat lifelong neck pain. He began working at a medical marijuana collective, where part of his job entails coming up with a marketing and public education plan to help erase any stigma associated with cannabis use.
He believes the medical and social benefits of the plant are only just starting to be understood. He plans to work as a grower’s vice president of marketing, research and development, and believes his knowledge of pot and business will help.
“I’m one of those rare cats that get both,” he says.