NORTH BONNEVILLE, Wash. — Deep in the Columbia River Gorge, a short drive from the Bridge of the Gods, the nation’s only government-run marijuana shop was running low on weed.
The store had been open for just a few days. Inside, manager Robyn Legun was frantically trying to restock. Outside, five customers stood waiting for the doors to open. Someone cracked a joke about this being a typical government operation, always running late.
But, of course, it’s not. This government store, bearing the cozy name Cannabis Corner, sells dozens of strains of marijuana and in several different forms, from pungent buds to infused cookies and coffee. It sells glass bongs and rolling papers. And it does it all at the direction of the North Bonneville Public Development Authority, making the local government uniquely dependent on this once-illicit drug.
“If I don’t get this order in this morning, we’re going to be out for the weekend,” said Legun, 36, fretting over her inventory list.
Legun used to manage a Bed Bath & Beyond. Now, she leads a team of 10 people trained to sell pot. Her new government job had her placing orders for Blue Magoo, Purple Kush and Pineapple Express.
“I can’t believe this is my life,” she said.
Just two years ago, selling marijuana for nonmedical purposes was a crime everywhere in the country. Pot prohibition was on. Today, four states are setting up legal marketplaces open to anyone 21 or older.
Tightly regulated private stores began popping up in Washington and Colorado in 2014; Alaska and Oregon plan to open stores in 2016. In the District, voters approved legal pot possession in November and the law took effect last month. And in November 2016, marijuana advocates expect to put legalization on the ballot in at least five more states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine.
“I’ve been surprised at how quickly things are moving. It’s just tremendous,” said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Marijuana clearly has momentum. For the first time, a majority of Americans — 52 percent — favor pot legalization, according to a recent poll by the well-regarded General Social Survey. Last month, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) – two likely candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — said legalization should be left to the states. And last week in the Senate, another potential GOP presidential contender, Rand Paul (Ky.), joined Democrats Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) in introducing a historic bill to end the federal ban on medical marijuana.
“It’s night and day from 2009,” said Dan Riffle, chief lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project. He said doors on Capitol Hill once closed to him are now swinging wide.
Still, even Riffle didn’t see the Cannabis Corner coming — a store where pot is not only tolerated by the government but promoted by it, like stamps, or maps, or Smokey Bear tchotchkes.
“That’s something that would’ve been anathema six or seven years ago,” Riffle said.
In many places, it still is. In 38 states, possessing an ounce of marijuana continues to carry the threat of jail time. Even in Washington, which in 2012 became one of the first states to legalize pot for recreational use, the drug is not universally embraced.
Of 281 incorporated municipalities, more than 90 have banned the opening of pot shops or enacted moratoriums. Officials in Pierce County are fighting a pot shop that opened last month in the city of Parkland, despite a county ban on the establishments. In Skamania County, home to North Bonneville, county commissioner Chris Brong said he personally doesn’t approve of the town’s decision.
“I don’t think it’s the type of business we want,” Brong said.
Fellow commissioner Doug McKenzie agreed. At the very least, he said, Cannabis Corner should have a private owner. “I don’t like government competing with private enterprise,” McKenzie said.
North Bonneville is no hippie haven. Initial thinking behind the shop was, in fact, defensive: to deter a bad owner. But the town — a drab collection of buildings thrown up in the 1970s when its 1,000 residents were relocated to make way for the expansion of the nearby Bonneville Dam — was struggling financially. The potential economic benefit was hard to resist.
A pot shop would provide a reason for tourists to stop in North Bonneville. Making it government-run would keep the profits local.
Mayor Don Stevens pushed the idea. Stevens is 58, a former Marine with wire-rim glasses, a beard and curly gray hair along the sides of his head. As a teenager in 1970s Oregon, he joined the pro-marijuana group NORML, believing that legalization was just around the corner.
“Forty years later, it’s finally happening,” he said. “It’s been a long, strange trip, as they say.”
The Cannabis Corner sits at the edge of town just off State Highway 14 in a renovated storage barn. Red and white “Grand Opening” banners hang from a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. State laws limit advertising, so the store can be easy to miss.
Inside, it looks like a cross between a head shop and a gift boutique. It’s clean and spaced out. Classic rock plays quietly in the background. Long glass display cases line two walls, arranged by marijuana breeds, stretching from indica (calming) to sativa (energizing), with hybrids in between.
The marijuana comes by the gram in prepackaged, sealed plastic bags, usually $15 to $18 a pop — significantly less than at nearby private shops. Six days after the store opened, its menu apologized that 13 varieties were already “temporarily sold out!”
As three “bud tenders” helped customers make their selections, Glen Jorgensen, 67, settled on some Sour Diesel. The retired construction worker wore a gray T-shirt with an American flag on it and carried a small brown bag with a Cannabis Corner sticker bearing his purchase.
“There’s a lot of people my age who’ve been getting it under the table for years,” said Jorgensen, a Vietnam veteran who stopped by the store on his way back from the VA hospital. “Now, we don’t have to.”
After lunch, business spiked. In walked Levan Mattson, 23, with his parents, Daniel, 60, and Diana, 56. The family had been hiking nearby when Mom suggested they stop by the pot shop.
The younger Mattson was stunned. He loved pot. But he had never seen his parents get high. Now, his mom was perusing the edible products. She settled on a cookie.
“It’s weird seeing this,” he said. “But it’s also kind of awesome.”
Mayor Stevens dropped by the store in his new “I [pot leaf] Washington” T-shirt. He had just attended a meeting of the county Chamber of Commerce, where the Cannabis Corner was a new member.
Legun filled him in.
“I just placed our next re-up order,” she said. “We’re almost out of weed!”
The mayor beamed.
“How great is that?” he asked.
Initially, some residents opposed the pot shop. But the upset faded during a regulatory approval process that took more than a year. The city could not run the shop directly, so it set up a public development authority, like the one that runs Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The five-member board is responsible for business decisions and doling out store profits. Stevens’s first priority is renovating the town’s dilapidated playground.
But there is no promise of profitability. The marijuana business is competitive. Pot stores have opened 45 minutes away to the east and west. Just across the river gorge, Oregon could add stores of its own next year. And North Bonneville must repay $260,000 in high-interest loans it borrowed to get the store started.
At a meeting last week, development authority board members studied an early sales report. The store was averaging about $2,200 a day — well below initial projections. But board members felt confident that business would pick up with the summer tourist season.
“As we get another month or two under our belts, it’ll loosen up,” said John Spencer, a consultant hired to develop the store’s business plan.
Legun cheered the group with the Cannabis Corner’s first Yelp review: five stars. Then she brought up a potentially controversial topic: the employee discount program.
The bud tenders — all regular government workers with benefits and starting pay of $11 an hour — are a committed bunch. For instance, Kayley Blood, 25, left her job at a medicinal pot shop in Colorado to work at the Cannabis Corner. The Colorado market was already feeling too money-hungry and corporate, she said. She was attracted by the idea of a small store run for the people.
Legun wanted to offer Blood and other employees a steep discount. At the board meeting, she compared the Cannabis Corner to any other retail operation, where it’s important to have informed workers.
“We need to be doing constant trial and testing,” she argued.
One board member did not want to give up the profits. The board’s attorney worried that discounts might be considered gifts of government services. In the end, the board voted to offer the staff marijuana and bongs at a price just above cost.
At the Cannabis Corner, workers take the same drug test the town administers to all new hires. But they’re allowed — expected, actually — to test positive for marijuana.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Sen. Ted Cruz represents Florida. He represents Texas. This version has been corrected.