Island pot growers face legal bog in taking weed to mainland
State-approved marijuana businesses on Vashon and other islands will have to move their pot by air or sea — both regulated by federal agencies, which still consider weed illegal.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Scott Durkee is ready to grow some weed.
As soon as the state gives the OK, he and his business partners at Buds of Vashon plan to grow up to 2,000 square feet of plants, which could produce up to 100 pounds of marijuana per year.
But selling it off the island could be risky.
Since no roads connect Vashon to the mainland, marijuana growers will have to move their pot by air or sea — both regulated by federal agencies, which still consider weed illegal.
In other words, there may be no legal way for a state-approved marijuana producer to move product across the Puget Sound.
For Durkee and the 13 other growers seeking licenses on Vashon — some of whom have already invested thousands of dollars into their businesses — this poses a complication, especially given there’s only three retail shops planned for the island.
“We’re not going to sell it all on Vashon,” said Durkee, an island resident. “We’re stoners, but we’re not that much of stoners.”
But just because transportation is illegal doesn’t mean pot proprietors won’t still do it. State and federal agencies cited vague policies, and it’s unclear how — or if — rules will be enforced.
Given how the federal government has so far taken a hands-off approach to Washington’s marijuana industry, several hopeful growers said they’re operating on faith that, while it may technically be illegal, transporting pot through federal space won’t be an issue.
“My plan is to comply with all of the [Liquor Control Board’s] regulations,” said Durkee. “I’m just going to drive on the [ferry] boat as if I’m going to the Mariners game. And I don’t care about the Coast Guard and I don’t care about the federals, and I don’t think they care about it either. They have bigger fish to fry.”
Vashon Island could be a pot-grower’s utopia.
At 37 square miles, it’s larger than Manhattan, but with less than 1 percent of the population. This isolated, rural farming locale — combined with high voter approval of legalized marijuana — makes the island attractive real estate for outdoor growers, and it’s why Modern Farmer dubbed Vashon “Weed Island” last year.
“Vashon is an ideal place for growing marijuana,” said Shango Los, founder of the Vashon Island Marijuana Entrepreneurs Alliance. “Not only do we have a supportive agricultural community, but our island has a long history of producing prohibition-era marijuana, so the skill sets are already here.”
Licenses are pending for 14 producers, eight processors and three retailers on the island, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
Vashon is not the only location inaccessible by road where entrepreneurs hope to get in on Washington’s burgeoning marijuana industry. Proprietors also are seeking licenses on Lummi Island and the San Juan Islands.
State approval also is pending for a location at Point Roberts, where someone delivering weed would have to drive through Canada to reach the rest of Washington by road, a route that would present its own legal problems.
The only active pot business in Washington with no road access right now is Aqua Organics, in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
Ross Allen, the sole proprietor, said he only opened a month ago, so he hasn’t harvested yet, but hopes to this year.
Allen already has transported cuts and clones via Washington State Ferry, and plans to eventually move buds the same way, he said.
“I’m just trying to stick within regulations and do our state proud by doing this the right way,” he said.
His routes have been approved by the Liquor Control Board, and he hasn’t heard about any legal conflicts, he said.
That’s because the Liquor Control Board, the agency in charge of licensing marijuana producers, processors and retailers, expected the ferries would be OK for the industry’s use.
“I think they consider the ferries part of the state highway system, so you’d be transporting that just like you’d be transporting it on the road,” said board spokesman Brian Smith.
But the ferry system still doesn’t approve of marijuana on its vessels, even if the business is complying with state rules, said Marta Coursey, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, which operates the ferry.
Because the U.S. Coast Guard regulates the ferries, federal law supersedes state law, said Coursey.
“Citizens may not transport marijuana on our ferry system,” she said. If someone is caught transporting pot on the ferry, the policy is to turn the offender over to the Coast Guard.
Coursey said there is no plan to increase enforcement with new marijuana growers on the islands.
It’s unclear if a business could transport product on a personal boat while complying with the state’s guidelines.
Smith wrote in an email that the regulations are “focused on typical methods for transporting commercial products to market such as roads and highway systems.” He didn’t respond to follow-up questions.
It’s also unclear what would happen if someone was caught on a ferry or other boat with a delivery of legal pot.
In the case of small personal-use amounts of marijuana, the Coast Guard has a policy to seize the weed and turn the case over to local police. But if it’s a larger shipment from a legal business, the incident would be handled on a “case-by-case basis,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Mooers.
Mooers refused to say what would lead to federal legal action or what factors would make one case different from the next.
“We don’t have a hard-and-fast matrix that would say, ‘Well, if it’s this much, it’s this vessel and it’s this route, we’re going to do X, Y and Z,’ ” she said. “It’s just not that cut and dry.”
A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration gave an almost identical response, saying only that it would handle air trafficking on a “case-by-case basis.” Federal law says a pilot’s license could be revoked for transporting a federally controlled substance.
Not a new issue
Medical-marijuana producers have been using the ferries for years.
“I know personally people who take marijuana off the island and bring it on the island, and of course the only way to do that is by ferry,” said Vashon grower Kat Sharp. “I know that none of them have ever been stopped or harassed or bothered whatsoever.”
As recreational producers and retailers get licensed on the islands, Vashon’s Los is confident that marijuana transporters will ultimately be protected by the U.S. Justice Department’s assurance that federal authorities won’t interfere with state-sanctioned pot businesses.
“We have set aside any concerns about moving legal marijuana on the ferry,” said Los.
Even so, he advises proprietors to take precautions, such as not driving a car featuring a company’s brand on the side.
Durkee believes the ferry operators and pot transporters will abide by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As long as he complies with the Liquor Control Board rules and keeps the product locked in his trunk, he doesn’t anticipate any legal complications.
“I’ve lived here 25 years,” he said, “and no one has ever asked me to open my trunk.”
Andy Mannix: email@example.com