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Originally published July 10, 2013 at 5:29 PM | Page modified July 11, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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Creating history at indoor-pot farm

In the cowboy culture of marijuana, one grower followed the rules. Jonathan Martin wonders if Seattle left him hanging.

Times editorial columnist

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Alex Cooley’s leased warehouse in the Sodo neighborhood is just another nondescript low-rise brick slab in Seattle’s industrial heartland.

But it should go on somebody’s historic register, because as of March, the 9,130-square-foot space became the first fully permitted indoor-marijuana farm in the history of Seattle.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

And then Seattle, and other cities, should pull Cooley’s permit file, and treat it as a case study. If Washington’s grand experiment with a regulated-marijuana market is going to work, cities are going to have to drag the secret clan of marijuana growers into the light.

By necessity and by culture, they’re as secretive as Freemasons. Cooley, 28, is a very skilled member of the club, and he sweats the legal risk of outing himself in this column.

He is a strange mix of maverick and rule-follower. Cooley, whom I’ve known for a few years, trained to become an elementary-school teacher and sports nickel-sized disc earrings. He’s got a, uh, higher mission of bringing legitimacy and professional ethics to the cowboy culture of marijuana.

“It’s not legitimate if you have to lie about what you’re doing,” said Cooley, who operates under the name Solstice with a partner, supplying more than a dozen medical-marijuana dispensaries.

But he had no idea what he was getting into when he walked into Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development last summer — “My heart beating out of my chest” — and inquired about getting full permits for his planned warehouse grow.

That started nine months in permitting hell.

Even in marijuana-friendly Seattle, the city wasn’t sure what to do, said Brennon Staley, a senior land-use planner. Would inspectors be abetting a federal felony? What legal use does a grow op fall under? “The question was ‘Are we allowed to do this?’ ” said Staley.

Staley, however, found a legal use called “vertical farming,” created years ago to encourage rooftop horticulture. Once that was settled, Cooley realized he had to update the 1926 warehouse for the modern energy code.

Sophisticated electrical and climate-control systems required multiple inspections, as did compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and fire- and life-safety codes. Solstice failed inspections three times; his permit file goes on for dozens of pages.

“We more than doubled our anticipated construction costs,” he said, sighing. Unable to get a bank loan, he and his partner dipped into savings. Cooley said he took $29,350 in salary last year, less than most of Solstice’s 12 employees.

This all may sound like a cautionary tale to Cooley’s unpermitted competitors.

But many of them will soon apply for licenses to grow under Initiative 502’s regulated marijuana market. If they do, they should have to follow Cooley’s trail.

Here’s how it could work: When growers apply to the state Liquor Control Board for a cultivation permit, the city where the grow will be located gets a notice and a chance to comment. Although the state board issues licenses, cities retain code-enforcement authority, said board spokesman Mikhail Carpenter.

The Seattle City Council is currently considering marijuana zoning regulations, but it should also take this opportunity to mandate full code compliance for those businesses, particularly for electrical systems.

The fact that grow operations all over town have thousands of amps of juice flowing through ad hoc electrical boxes should make us all twitchy. Just Google “marijuana” and “electrical fire.”

But the city seems squishy about how vigorously it will enforce code compliance for I-502 licensees. “There’s a question of resources, and a question of legal barriers,” said Staley. “We can’t get on the premises unless we’re invited.”

It’s also a question of politics. Seattle’s elected officials — mayor, sheriff, city council, city attorney, even the King County sheriff — are universally pro-legalization. Code enforcement could be — falsely — equated with being prohibitionist, and that gets few votes.

But what message does nonenforcement send? Alex Cooley was an idiot for following the rules. The huge cost of getting permits left him at a competitive disadvantage to his unpermitted peers, many of whom I suspect are not paying sales or unemployment-insurance taxes. “Hell, people are still stealing electricity,” said Cooley.

“I feel like a fool at times,” he acknowledges. “But anyone who wants to be a legitimate business has a moral obligation to do this.”

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com

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